FEMA IPAWS, NPWS/PEP Emergency Broadcast Studio at WKAQ, San Juan. (FEMA photo)

FEMA Ready Report: The Right Disaster Alerts Are Critical for Safer Communities

Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed horrible destruction from hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and wildfires throughout the country. At the same time, we have also seen how proper preparation, alerts and warnings help the public take necessary precautions to ensure their safety for all kinds of disasters.

All disasters and emergencies happen locally. While first responders are gearing up to respond to the initial effects of an incident, it is the responsibility of local officials to rapidly and effectively communicate to the public what actions they should take to protect themselves.

FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) can help communities take proactive and protective action before a disaster strikes. Warning the public about potential threats and communicating clear instructions can be the difference between life and death. IPAWS offers emergency management officials a single interface to send emergency information to radio and television as Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcasts, to cellular phones as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and through other modes of communication.

As FEMA continues to improve IPAWS through regular tests, at the local and national levels, we need all communities to be aware and engaged to ensure it is operational and identify opportunities to make changes.

This year, FEMA will test the EAS via the National Public Warning System (NPWS) through Primary Entry Point (PEP) facilities. This will test the capability of the EAS system to deliver warnings to the public if internet connectivity is not available. The NPWS is composed of private or commercial radio broadcast stations that participate with FEMA to provide emergency alerts and warning information to the public. As the primary source of initial broadcast for a national alert, the NPWS was designed to provide a national warning capability for the president in the event of a dire emergency.

Although NPWS is primarily for the use of the president, the system can be used by local and state authorities with proper coordination with station personnel. In addition to decisions such as using NPWS and adopting and enforcing zoning and building codes, the decision to issue a WEA is made at the state or local level – from the type of alerts, to the geographic area covered by an alert. State authorities have full autonomy to originate these alerts via IPAWS that are directed to the geographic areas within their jurisdiction and to use the system for messages as they see fit to provide public safety. Each state has its own alert and warning policies and plans to guide the use of the system within their jurisdiction.

This year, FEMA added more than 200 various government agencies to the list of who can use IPAWS.

However, there is still a long way to go. There are many communities that do not participate in IPAWS.

While there are challenges to the implementation of the system at the state and local level, FEMA provides key resources to help remove two major obstacles: training and funding.

FEMA provides free training on the how to use the system. FEMA also runs the IPAWS Lab, which allows for an interactive and closed testing environment to increase proficiency and confidence of IPAWS users. Training builds the skills needed to react quickly in an emergency. Alerting authorities can test, evaluate and conduct operational assessments, demonstrations and leverage expert technical support.

In terms of funding, FEMA administers grants to support a full range of preparedness activities, and recipients can use some of their federal preparedness grants to support the purchase and maintenance of IPAWS equipment and software, as well as to train and exercise personnel who use the system.

The ability to alert people in your area of imminent threats is a concrete way to improve your community’s disaster preparedness. We urge you to work with your jurisdictions to find ways to make IPAWS available to your community. Information on applying for IPAWS can be found at www.fema.gov/ipaws. The IPAWS Program Management office can be reached by emailing IPAWS@fema.dhs.gov.

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Antwane Johnson is the Director of Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Program Management Office within FEMA’s National Continuity Programs. Previous service includes Director, DOD Critical Infrastructure Program; and Chief, Information Management Technology/Arms Control Information and Notification, in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Mr. Johnson is a graduate of Norfolk State University, the National Defense University’s Information Resource Management College Chief Information Officer program, the Defense Acquisition University Defense Systems Management College, and U.S. Army Logistics Management College’s Intelligent Technologies for Operations Research. Mr. Johnson and his team were awarded the Homeland Security Today Mission Award in 2018.

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