FEMA, state and local government must better coordinate to improve emergency broadcasting, says GAO

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to improve how it transmits emergency information to state and local groups and citizens through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, a new report by the Government Accountability Office says. While FEMA has made improvements to IPAWS in recent years, especially the ability to push emergency text messages to citizens' mobile devices, GAO found that state and local alert organizations wanted more guidance from FEMA on how to better integrate and test IPAWS with their existing emergency alert capabilities.

IPAWS is an extension of the Emergency Alert System, which aims to integrate EAS and other federal, state and local emergency alert systems into a single-comprehensive national emergency alert system. But getting the system up and running has proven difficult.

Although FEMA has made major improvements to get IPAWS implemented nationally, the GAO found five major barriers to getting the system running at state and local levels. These are: insufficient guidance on how states should fully run and manage IPAWS; inability for state and local authorities to test all of the IPAWS components; Commercial Mobile Alert System geo-targeting and character limitations; inadequate public outreach on IPAWS capabilities; and limited federal, state and local resources to fully implement IPAWS.

One example of the issues facing IPAWS revolve around CMAS messaging. Under Federal Communications Commission rules, CMAS alerts must be sent to areas no larger than a county, and be in less than 90 characters. But the GAO noted that several state and local organizations are concerned that the system may over-alert the public with mobile messages because the alerts may not geo-target the intended region.

The 90-character limit on messages also raised concerns about not providing the public with enough information, the GAO reported. For example, the GAO found in one state, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning to a large county roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, when only a small part of that county was affected. State officials told the GAO that county residents were confused because the 90-chareacter messages offered very little useful information. As a result, the local emergency management authority was overwhelmed with calls for additional information.

The FCC is currently reviewing the CMAS rules, including the geo targeting and character length regulations to see if additional changes can be made, the GAO report said.

The GAO report made the following recommendations to help improve IPAWS and its national implementation.

  • FEMA and the FCC should establish a set of best practices and procedures to ensure that participating state and local organizations can fully implement and test IPAWS components and ensure their integration and interoperability.
  • FEMA, in conjunction with the FCC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, need to conduct a coordinated outreach program to educate the American public about IPAWS capabilities, especially CMAS.
  • Develop a plan to disseminate national level alerts through IPAWS to increase redundancy and communicate presidential alerts through multiple pathways.
  • FEMA and the FCC should develop a strategy to regularly test national level EAS, including the need for a national test code, developing milestones and time frames, improving data collection efforts and reporting on after action plans.

Homeland Security Department officials agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Henry Kenyon is a freelance reporter.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-375 (.pdf)

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