Rapidly alerting the public to what is about to occur is a key mitigation and readiness strategy of FEMA. It is one of the methods the agency has used since its inception through various radio systems since the days the nation advanced its Civil Defense posture during the Cold War.
Most recently, the Emergency Alert System (1997), which replaced the Emergency Broadcast System (1963), has been replaced with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS). This was a modernization move by the federal government as one of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. The post-Katrina congressional report recommended that in the future all levels of government “must have the means to communicate essential and accurate emergency information to the public prior to, during and after a catastrophe.” At the time, several states were not even using the Emergency Alert System. Thus, in 2006, through an executive order, FEMA’s IPAWS was born, bringing together several legacy communications systems and creating an increasingly robust single notification system.
IPAWS messages can be anything from a critical weather alert to instructions for the public after a terrorist attack. The system provides the White House with the capability to address the American people within 10 minutes during a national emergency.
What’s different about IPAWS is that it utilizes multiple pathways for public alerts, and it allows participating Alerting Authorities to write their own message using a commercially available universal software platform for subsequent distribution to a specific geographic or regional area. Being able to develop more tailored alerts increases the likelihood that the message will grab the attention of the potentially affected public.
IPAWS messages can be distributed via television (terrestrial, satellite, and cable), pagers and cell phones (via SMS text messages), AM/FM radio (both analog and digital), satellite radio, and soon on some in-car displays. These messages can also go out over NOAA Weather Radio, web browsers, social media, and now on increasingly common large billboards that dot the roadways of the country.
IPAWS message software is free, and to be able to use it a local or state agency can apply and enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with FEMA, which will allow them to become a Collaborative Operating Group (COG). Then, the COG would participate in a short training class, becoming a functional and participating entity.
IPAWS supplements, but does not replace, the current Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which dispatches short, geographically targeted, text-like emergency messages that can be broadcast to devices such as cell phones and consist of three types of alerts: presidential, AMBER alerts, and imminent threats. Such messages can be sent to highly specific locations of various sizes, such as lower Manhattan in New York, a specific county such as Volusia in Florida, or a larger region such as the Gulf Coast in the Southeast U.S. WEA is a partnership between FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and wireless carriers (i.e. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc.), to enhance public safety.
On Tuesday, FEMA announced a partnership with Lamar Advertising Company to display emergency alerts. Lamar was founded in 1902, and today has more than 350,000 billboards, including a number of increasingly digital ones in North America, which FEMA will now aim toward federating with the IPAWS system.
According to FEMA, IPAWS alerts are already running on Lamar digital billboards in 17 states and are available to run in all 43 states that Lamar covers. This partnership will give Lamar the ability to broadcast emergency alerts from authorities on available digital billboard space in the affected region. While alerts will be displayed for 30 minutes at a time, not all alerts sent through IPAWS will appear on billboards.
FEMA is required by law to test IPAWS at least every three years, but due to the pandemic the 2020 test was not conducted; the 2021 test is on track. IPAWS is a public- and private-sector partnership that ensures one real-time message with vital information can quickly reach as many people as possible to save lives and protect property; the high visibility of digital billboards can help provide critical information people need to stay safe during emergencies.