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Emergency Alert System Update
Martin Bongers

Project Officer, Integrated Public Alert and Warning System

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)



Good afternoon.  I'm one of four project officers at the Office of National Security Coordination (ONSC) of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The ONSC works with the integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS. 


IPAWS is a DHS-sponsored program to improve public alert and warning.  It includes both the current system that most of you know as the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and the new system which will replace that.  FEMA leads the coordination.  We are also working in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and others.  Congress has provided $20 million to improve public warning.  We are coordinating with the White House Task Force on Effective Warning that is co-chaired by DHS and NOAA.


FEMA provides the overall DHS IPAWS co-chair management.  We are the executive agent for the national-level Emergency Alert System.  We operate the National Warning System, otherwise known NAWAS and the Radiological Emergency Preparedness public warning systems, REP. 


Current Systems


The EAS and other emergency notification mechanisms are part of an overall public alert and warning system.  FEMA exercises jurisdiction over all of these.  EAS provides the President and senior officials a last-resort method of addressing the nation during national emergencies.  Capable of unlimited duration audio messages, national-level activation rests solely with the President.  As of this date it's never been used.  State, territory tribal, and local activations of the system are permitted.  Most of the emergency alert activations are done by NOAA’s National Weather Service, in the way of weather warnings or watches.  EAS involves 14,000+ broadcast TV and radio stations.  The radio stations are designated as national primary (NP), state primary (SP), state relay (SR), or local primary (LP1).  In addition, EAS involves 10,000+ cable TV systems.


The technology for our current Emergency Alert System is from circa 1966.  Right now, if you are not in front of a television or listening to your radio, you are not going to get the alert or warning.  Some statistics:  Americans listen to the radio an average of 12% of their day.  The average TV set is on about 30% of the day.  Less than 1% are listening or watching in the middle of the night.  And 17% of households use satellite TVs, and satellite TVs do not participate in the Emergency Alert System.


There is limited geo-targeting with this system, and that may result in wrong audience receipt.  So you would get an alert if it didn't pertain to you.  It is only focused at the county level, but broadcast TV and radio typically cover more than one county.  It's an audio-only message.  It may not help 29 million Americans with hearing loss.  It's a cascaded system.  The national level message may not be relayed to the region.  The cascade is open to possible misuse or intrusion.  The national level system is not easily geo-targeted.  It's hard to send a unique message to a particular area.  The system relies on vulnerable telephone connectivity, and on the coverage of the national daytime primary entry point radio stations.  There are 36 of them across the country, and that's how we get the emergency alert system out -- as it currently is.  The next slide shows the daytime primary entry point coverage.  You need to realize that during the day, radio propagation is at its worst. 


The next slide has to do with a high-altitude electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) event.  This information was declassified a few years ago.  The Russians were experimenting with EMP, which would occur when a nuclear device is detonated in the Earth's atmosphere.  They found that overhead transmission lines and telecommunications were damaged, diesel engines were damaged, and long-lines also had problems due to EMP.  Anything that had a circuit board or was solid state was pretty much degraded in one way or another, if not completely lost.  If there was a burst over Omaha, Nebraska at an altitude of 480 kilometers, even on the coasts -- San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C. -- there would be 30% or more degradation. 


IPAWS also encompasses the NAWAS.  FEMA operates and controls this system.  It's a dedicated party line for emergency managers and military use.  NAWAS also has regional circuits.  There are 300 special telephone terminals in 10 FEMA regions.  Grouped or individual activation is possible.  NAWAS also has state circuits, and state warning points serve as the bridge to regional circuits.


In the local Washington D.C. Metro area, we have the Washington Metro Area Warning and Alert System (WAWAS).  That's also owned and operated by FEMA.  We delegated operations to the D.C. government; WAWAS connects 119 federal, state, and local governments in the national capital region.


Some background on the chemical weapons.  They are stored in eight U.S. Army installations.  FEMA supports the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program’s Public Alerting in 10 states, providing a microwave communications network around each installation to nearby cities’ emergency operations centers.  They provide sirens, VHF and UHF radios to local responders, and tone alert radios to nearby installations. 


FEMA provides technical support for public warning.  The REP program exists in 64 communities near nuclear plants.  We review plans for sirens and other warning systems that are near nuclear plant sites. 


New Initiatives


This summarizes the old system.  Now we're going to talk the new IPAWS initiatives, the $20 million that Congress has appropriated for the alert and warning.  We're conducting several pilot programs which will all encompass the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System: The digital emergency alert system pilot is ongoing; Geo-targeted alerting system; the DHS web alert relay, or DHS WARN; the All-Hazards web alert portal (the last two have been combined into one project as we speak);  NOAA network upgrades; and all-hazard radios in public schools; emergency alert system satellite and network upgrades; and finally reports, IPAWS architecture, exercises and public education. 


The Digital Emergency Alert System is currently in Phase 2 of the pilot.  It started with FEMA.  With most television stations and public television going to digital broadcasting, it freed up some bandwidth.  With a technology called data casting, we're able to send data -- text, audio, and video -- simultaneously. 


In Phase 1, FEMA sent the test data to WETA, a local PBS affiliate.  WETA then digitally transmitted the data.  It went to the D.C. federal, state, and local agencies.  It also went to the D.C. area wireless telephone carriers, D.C.-area cable service providers, and D.C.-area television and radio stations.  Phase I was pretty much just a proof-of-concept that it could actually be done.


In Phase 2 we started sending our data directly to the PBS which then up linked it to their satellite network, and it went out to Maryland Public Television, the New York networks, WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia, and we also hit a radio station in Alaska and one in Tennessee.  And, again, it went out to the D.C.-area television/radio stations, and other public television stations. 


We had a long list of partners with this, I won't read them all off, but we're actually working with all of these entities (see slides).  Without them it wouldn't be possible. 


Our next pilot is called the Geo-Targeted Alerting System, and that's a joint DHS and NOAA pilot in the national capital region.  What we're going to do is integrate near-real-time weather and hazard predictions with collaborative alert zone determinations.  It provides a more precise geo-targeting alerting, and alerts more devices.  What this all means is that we’ll actually be able to geo-target an incident by using a reverse 9-1-1; we'll send out a warning to cell phones, pagers, PDAs, electronic billboards, and other devices in the affected area.  NOAA is the agency that draws the polygon, and that's how we get the geo-coding of the affected area. 


The DHS web alert relay provides a capability to alert the public through a web-based opt-in alerting service.  I want to emphasize that it's opt-in, meaning that you sign up to request what alerts you want.  The pilots are planned for the national capital region, Florida, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, and one other state and city, probably somewhere in Washington State at this point.  It provides public with warning information based on location, zip codes, type of event, flood, tornado, explosion.  You can opt-in to receive warnings on your phone, cell phone, your desktop, your pager, your laptop.  It will provide other vetted alert warning information on the website.


The All-Hazards web alert portal, which was combined with the DHS WARN, will demonstrate how a web alerting protocol can securely accept warning information from official authorized sources.  That's one of the things that we're wrestling with, how we can control who is actually sending the alerts out and making sure that it's coming from an authorized source. 


It distributes that information to all appropriate systems, and then it will broadcast the warnings to officials and citizens in the appropriate geographic area based on their needs and interest. 


This pilot is being done in coordination with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, the FCC, and the Department of Transportation, Department of Justice, and the State of Washington.


The national-level EAS satellite and network upgrades:  As I mentioned before, we have 36 primary entry-point radio stations.  We've got 30 AM radio stations across the United States, and we have three FM radio stations along the east coast.  The upgrades are from non-secure landline front-based dissemination to secure satellite broadcast.  We're going to add PEP stations to all 50 states and the five U.S. territories.  We're going to increase the number of direct-receive stations from 34 to over 800, and we're going to add EMP hardening to selected sites.  The designated stations will provide coverage for the entire United States, and will be hardened against the EMP.


NOAA All-Hazards Radio school pilot program:  I saw that NOAA has their exhibit at this conference with their NOAA Weather Radios.  This school pilot program, a collaborative effort between the DHS, NOAA and the Department of Education, is focusing on 20 urban areas.  Radios have been provided to over 16,000 public schools.  The program will use the DHS citizen corps to assist in the public outreach.  There is also a website and educational package being developed. 


The expanding DHS broadcast capability of providing direct access capability over NOAA All-Hazards radio via single interface to any county, state, region, or nationally.  It upgrades the current manual process to satellite-based transmission technology.


IPAWS’ end-state objective is to technologically enhance the public alert and warning system, develop and execute involving IPAWS architecture, exercises, and other evaluations.  Above all what we want to do is empower, educate, and protect the public.  Thank you. 


Question and Answer


Melissa Gagnon, Maine Center on Deafness:  We have a program similar to this that's set up with the Division of Deafness and our agency as well.  A couple of things that come to mind when I hear your presentation, I think this sounds thrilling because we can then add this to our features.  What would you do as far as equipment is concerned?  How are the deaf people going to be getting -- I'm assuming text messages?  Then how is that coverage going to play out in rural areas, and the last one is when will this be ready?  Thank you. 


MB:  Let me take the part that I know best first.  Right now all of these are pilot programs.  They're more than proof of concept; we know that the concepts work.  All of them have been started.  The digital emergency alert system is well under way.  The geo-targeted is well under way.  We've got an integration contract, and we're working to put them together. The answer is that we want to get it out as soon as possible.  Can I give you a date?  A year, maybe two years.  As far as the devices for the hearing impaired and visually impaired, we're working with the industry.  We've got the technology, and we're going to make sure that it's accessible to both those communities.  Regarding coverage, once the architecture is in place we'll have coverage over the complete United States and the territories. 


Harold Salters, T-Mobile:  Just a question about the secondary impacts of an emergency alert system.  What is the anticipated impact once the alert goes out?  What would the impact be on spectrum-limited systems such as wireless carriers when everybody gets the alert then picks up their cell phone to try to contact, you know, their immediate network of loved ones and others? 


MB:  Well, I am glad that you asked this -- or had this question.  There are some folks out there that believe in time of a national crisis of an emergency that the cell service should be cut completely.  I don't want to bring doom and gloom into it, but there are folks out there that will use it to detonate devices, or use it to coordinate their intelligence.  That's one of the reasons that the IPAWS not only doesn't certainly rely on wireless, but it's got satellite, it's got Voice over IP, it's got all of that stuff.  You know, we really don't know; we know what happened on September 11th.  Everything got overloaded.  We suspect that will happen again.  So we don't want to have a single point of failure.  We want to be redundant in several different ways.


Moderator Dan Bart:  Based on the experiences that we had, we do know as he mentioned that when you put too much capacity on the system it will exceed its engineered limits.  But what we've seen is bursty data, Internet e-mails got off better than trying to use your phone.  The shorter the message, and the more delay-tolerant it is, those kinds of messages seemed to work better than just picking up your wireless or wireless phone.  Now, for people involved in restoration activities there are things like the Government Emergency Telephone System and Wireless Priority Service which allows certain kinds of traffic based on a priority need to get through the network, whereas an ordinary citizen's traffic may not. 


MB:  I failed to mention, during September 11th, text messages were one of the few things that did go through. 


Brenda Kelly Frey, Director for Maryland Relay:  I know a lot of people who are Deaf who use TTYs are getting rid of their landlines and moving over to cellular.  Now, I've just heard you saying how concerned that you were that the government would be taking over the cellular towers.  So are you giving advice that we should keep our landlines as well as text paging devices just in case? 


MB:  I don't believe I said that we were going to take over cellular lines.  I said that there were folks out there and there was argument for shutting cell service in a national crisis.  That's way above my head. 


Brenda Kelly Frey:  I had also heard from another source that the cell towers would be taken over by the government -- local, national, and federal -- to be able to communicate with each other.  So if that's the case, and if we're dependent so much on cellular, that may not and wise thing for us to do, is that correct? 


MB:  I am really not qualified to speak on that. 


DAN BART:  I will make a couple of points.  People are aware of the fact that cell phones have been used to detonate a device.  If you use the alarm function of a cell phone much like going and buying a wind-up clock, you can use the timer function of the cell phone to be a detonating device.  If you shut the cell system down, the phone will go through its alarm function and it wouldn't affect that.  He did mention that people are concerned about detonating by making a call or using the phone as coordinating device.  If terrorists from an airplane are using phones from airplanes to coordinate, that's a concern to some people.  Conversely there are others that say, wait a minute, don't shut the cell phone system down because I can take a picture of the terrorists, I could use the phone to report the terrorists if an incident happens. That's a policy call.  Do more people survive by leaving the phone system up, or by bringing the phone system down?  That's a policy debate that may go on in some circles.


The other comment, yesterday we had somebody that said they removed their wired phone because they were doing video over their cable modem, and there was a concern about what happens on that infrastructure.  I would suggest that those who think about pulling your phone out might want to think about what is called Lifeline service.  Many local exchange carriers offer lifeline, which is a couple of bucks a month.  You may find that's your backup phone in case one of your other means, whether it's cellular, or if you are using some other means for other stuff that you still have that survivability, and you have a redundancy of more than one service. 


David Poehlman, Maryland Technical Assistance Program: We talked about EMP hardening.  And you mentioned that there is going to be coverage through EMP hardened facilities that will cover the U.S.  In the event of a EMP burst, will there be anyone to hear what you have to say?  Thank you. 


MB:  Well, as I stated, it's an air burst that's detonated 480 kilometers up in the atmosphere.  We're not going to get anything down here.  It won't be like a ground detonation.  But all it will do is give you that EMP pulse.  It won't harm people, but it will certainly harm electronics and communications. 


DAN BART:  The question was if you have a EMP burst, your core transmitters may be hardened, if there aren’t any receivers, the terminal devices that are hardened, could they receive any broadcast? 


MB:  I honestly can't answer that question.  The EMP hardening we're talking about are containers.


DAN BART:  I would just note that if you put the EMP commission in Google there is a lot of information from the EMP commission.  Congress convened the EMP commission.  A lot of this information is public.  An awful lot of it is classified.  If you want to pursue EMP, there is lots of information that you can find on the web. 


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