Communicating Safety Measures to Your Community in an Emergency

Is your department ready to order a public evacuation if a wildland fire threatens your community? Do you have the resources to alert everyone in the path of danger? How can you reach the public simultaneously through TV, radio, cell phones, landlines, internet services, sirens and road signs?

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is a national alert and warning system available for use by state, local, territorial, tribal and federal public alerting authorities to send emergency alerts to citizens. FEMA created IPAWS (in accordance with Executive Order 13407) to provide a reliable, comprehensive, integrated and flexible emergency communications system to provide people with alerts and warnings in times of disasters. This system modernizes and enhances alert and warning delivery to the American population.

IPAWS receives and authenticates messages transmitted by alerting authorities and simultaneously routes them through a single interface to various systems, such as the emergency alert system for radio and television, wireless emergency alerts (WEAs), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, internet services and other unique public-alerting systems.

IPAWS is the only way public-safety officials can access and send WEAs. WEAs are short emergency messages from authorized public-alerting authorities that can be broadcast from cellular towers in the designated alert area to any WEA-enabled mobile device that communicates with the cell tower during the alert duration. IPAWS is a partnership between FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and wireless carriers to enhance public safety.

WEAs automatically pop up on a mobile device screen, limited to just 90 characters. WEAs use a unique ring tone and vibration designed to draw attention to an emergency. WEAs are targeted to a specific geographic area and if a WEA-capable mobile device is physically located in that area, it will automatically receive and display the message.

WEAs aren't subscription based, so customers of participating wireless carriers with WEA-capable phones don't sign up to receive the alerts. Instead, they automatically receive notification if a WEA is active in their area.

WEAs use SMS-Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) as the delivery service technology, avoiding congestion issues experienced by traditional voice and text messaging (SMS-PP) alerting services. This translates into faster and more comprehensive message delivery during an emergency.

In the future, IPAWS could be used by public-safety officials to help save lives and protect property affected by wildland fires. The NFPA reported that about 70,000 wildland fires destroyed more than 9 million acres across the United States in 2012. Due to record dry conditions, more than 72,000 U.S. communities are now at risk.

IPAWS has proven to be a valuable tool for providing citizens with vital information before, during and after a disaster. IPAWS became operational in 2011 and has since served as a vital message dissemination conduit for public-safety officials. In February, Portland, Ore., used IPAWS to send WEAs to people in Multnomah County after freezing rain blanketed the metro area with ice. During Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing, public-safety officials used IPAWS’ WEA alerts to notify the public of shelter-in-place and evacuation locations, respectively.

Conversely, there have been instances when public-safety officials weren't able to reach the whole community in affected areas. In April 2012, a Colorado wildland fire reportedly claimed the lives of three people because an emergency 911-system malfunctioned, failing to alert about 12% of the people to evacuate. IPAWS is a complementary, not a replacement, system that offers public officials an effective, comprehensive way to use multiple communication pathways to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Currently, 43 states and territories have adopted IPAWS and seven have initiated the application process. FEMA’s IPAWS Program Management Office has valuable information to help public-safety officials get started with adopting IPAWS. Also, the IPAWS Toolkit for Alerting Authorities provides guidance on how to become an authorized alerting authority.

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