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Agencies Need to Address Pending Emergency Alert Applications, Says GAO

Emergency alerts can provide lifesaving information. FEMA manages the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, allowing public safety agencies to send alerts to cell phones, radios, and TVs during natural disasters or other emergencies.

FEMA has begun to modernize alerting capabilities with help from the FCC. However, some state and local public safety agencies cannot access the system and others have low confidence in using it. Also, without goals and performance measures for improvements made to wireless emergency alerts, the FCC can’t ensure the system is working as intended.

The Government Accountability Office is making 3 recommendations to address these concerns.

Use of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) has increased since its launch in 2012. IPAWS enables authorized federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local alerting authorities to send a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) to mobile devices, such as cell phones and an Emergency Alert System (EAS) alert to media platforms, such as radios and television. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) operates IPAWS and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establishes rules for telecommunications providers to deliver WEA and EAS alerts. A public safety agency must submit an application and receive approval from FEMA to become an IPAWS alerting authority. In September 2019, more than 1,400 alerting authorities had access to IPAWS, up from fewer than 100 authorities in 2013. All states have at least one state alerting authority, but gaps in local authority access remain (see figure) that could limit the timeliness of alerts as emergencies occur at the local level. GAO found 430 pending IPAWS applications as of September 2019, some of which dated back to 2012. FEMA has not established procedures to prioritize and follow up with applicants and FEMA officials acknowledged that doing so would be beneficial.

FEMA and FCC have taken steps to modernize IPAWS and improve alerting. For example, FEMA has made system upgrades and FCC has made various WEA improvements, such as requiring wireless phone carriers to provide more precise geographic targeting of alerts. Prior to these improvements, officials from many alerting authorities said the inability to geographically target alerts with accuracy made the officials reluctant to send WEA messages. FCC intends to partner with certain localities to test geographic targeting and, according to FCC officials, plans to use other tests to learn about how the improvements perform during emergencies. However, FCC has not developed goals and performance measures for these efforts. Doing so would help FCC more clearly assess whether the WEA improvements are working as intended. Furthermore, having specific performance information could increase alerting authorities’ confidence in and use of IPAWS.

GAO is making three recommendations, including that FEMA establish procedures to prioritize and address pending IPAWS applications and that FCC develop goals and performance measures to monitor the WEA improvements. FEMA concurred with GAO’s recommendations. FCC stated it was taking steps to gather data to inform the development of metrics as GAO recommended.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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