Emergency Alerting:

Capabilities Have Improved, but Additional Guidance and Testing Are Needed

GAO-13-375: Published: Apr 24, 2013. Publicly Released: May 23, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Since 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken actions to improve the capabilities of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and to increase federal, state, and local capabilities to alert the public, but barriers remain to fully implementing an integrated system. Specifically, IPAWS has the capability to receive and authenticate Internet-based alerts from federal, state, and local public authorities and disseminate them to the public through multiple systems. For example, since January 2012, publicalerting authorities can disseminate Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages through IPAWS to television and radio stations. Beginning in April 2012, alerting authorities have used IPAWS to transmit alerts via the Commercial Mobile Alert System interface to disseminate text-like messages to mobile phones. FEMA also adopted alert standards and increased coordination efforts with multiple stakeholders. Although FEMA has taken important steps to advance an integrated system, state and local alerting authorities we contacted cited a need for more guidance from FEMA on how to integrate and test IPAWS capabilities with their existing alerting systems. For example, an official with a state alerting authority said that additional guidance from FEMA is needed to determine what systems and policies should be put in place before integrating and testing IPAWS with other public alerting systems in the state's 128 counties and cities. In the absence of sufficient guidance from FEMA, states we contacted are reluctant to fully implement IPAWS. This reluctance decreases the capability for an integrated, interoperable, and nationwide alerting system.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required all EAS participants (e.g., broadcast radio and television, cable operators, satellite radio and television service providers, and wireline video-service providers) to submit a report to FCC by December 27, 2011, on the results of the nationwide EAS test. As of January 2013, 61 percent of broadcasters and cable operators had submitted the required report. Of those, 82 percent reported receiving the nationwide test alert, and 61 percent reported successfully retransmitting the alert to other stations, as required. Broadcasters' and cable operators' reception of the alert varied by state, from 6 percent in Oregon to 100 percent in Delaware. Key reasons for reception or retransmission difficulties included poor audio quality, outdated broadcaster-monitoring assignments, and equipment failure. For example, poor audio quality of the test alert resulted in some broadcasters' receiving a garbled and degraded audio message and others' receiving a duplicate alert that caused equipment to malfunction. According to FEMA officials, the poor audio quality is being addressed, in part, with the deployment of a dedicated satellite network that will become fully operational by fall 2013. However, at the time of our review, FEMA and FCC had taken few steps to address other problems identified in the nationwide test. Furthermore, while FCC rules call for periodic nationwide EAS testing, it is uncertain when the next test will occur. Without a strategy for regular nationwide testing of the relay distribution system, including developing milestones and timeframes and reporting on after-action plans, there is no assurance that EAS would work as intended should the President need to activate it to communicate with the American people.

Why GAO DId This Study

An effective system to alert the public during emergencies can help reduce property damage and save lives. In 2004, FEMA initiated IPAWS with the goal of integrating the nation's EAS and other public-alerting systems into a comprehensive alerting system. In 2009, GAO reported on long-standing weaknesses with EAS and FEMA's limited progress in implementing IPAWS. Subsequently, FEMA and FCC conducted the first-ever nationwide EAS test in November 2011. GAO was asked to review recent efforts to implement IPAWS and improve EAS. GAO examined: (1) how IPAWS capabilities have changed since 2009 and what barriers, if any, affect its implementation and (2) results of the nationwide EAS test and federal efforts to address identified weaknesses. GAO reviewed FEMA, FCC, and other documentation, and interviewed industry stakeholders and alerting authorities from six locations that were selected because they have public-alerting systems in addition to EAS and experienced problems during the nationwide EAS test.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FEMA work in conjunction with FCC to establish guidance for states to fully implement and test IPAWS components and implement a strategy for regular nationwide EAS testing. In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with GAO's recommendations and provided examples of actions aimed at addressing the recommendations. DHS, FCC, and the Department of Commerce also provided technical comments, which have been incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Mark Goldstein at (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An effective system to alert the public during emergencies can help reduce property damage and save lives. FEMA, in partnership with FCC and NOAA, is responsible for operating and maintaining the Emergency Alert System (EAS) at the federal level. In 2004, FEMA initiated the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) with the goal of integrating EAS and other public-alerting systems into a comprehensive alerting system. In April 2013, GAO reported that since its 2009 report, FEMA had taken actions to improve IPAWS capabilities and to increase federal, state, and local capabilities to alert the public, but barriers remain to fully implementing an integrated system. In particular, state and local alerting authorities GAO contacted cited a need for more guidance from FEMA on how to integrate and test IPAWS capabilities with their existing alerting systems. For example, an official with a state alerting authority said that additional guidance from FEMA is needed to determine what systems and policies should be put in place before integrating and testing IPAWS with the state's other public alerting systems. In the absence of sufficient guidance from FEMA, state officials GAO contacted were reluctant to fully implement IPAWS. GAO recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, establish guidance (e.g., procedures, best practices) to assist participating state and local alerting authorities to fully implement and test IPAWS components and ensure integration and interoperability. In 2017, GAO confirmed that FEMA has provided independent test and evaluation capabilities as well as technical support to public safety officials so that the officials could test their local alerting tools in a safe environment that would not impact the public. FEMA also hosted webinars for alerting authorities, which demonstrated successful connections to IPAWS and verified interoperability of alerting capabilities employed by state and local governments with IPAWS. Working in conjunction with FCC, FEMA participated in an FCC-sponsored workshop focused on ensuring that emergency alert and warning systems are effective and available to all. In particular, the workshop explored (1) how to improve the usefulness of EAS for emergency managers at the state and local levels and (2) how to improve the accessibility of alerts for people with disabilities. Additionally, FEMA authored a white paper, Alerting the Whole Community: Removing Barriers to Alerting Accessibility, which stresses the importance of alerting authorities to be able to communicate with the entire population within their jurisdiction, including people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. FEMA has released the IPAWS Toolkit for Alerting Authorities, available on the IPAWS website at www.fema.gov/informational-materials, which aims to support emergency management officials to adopt IPAWS and inform the public about how to access, use, and respond to public alerts and warnings. Finally, FEMA has released an on-line course designed to provide alerting authorities with the skills to draft appropriate, effective, and accessible warning messages. As a result of these efforts, state and local alerting authorities now have specific information on how to integrate and test their public-alerting systems with IPAWS components, which helps to ensure the interoperability and effectiveness of IPAWS and facilitate its implementation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that IPAWS is fully functional and capable of distributing alerts through multiple pathways as intended, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, to establish guidance (e.g., procedures, best practices) that will assist participating state and local alerting authorities to fully implement and test IPAWS components and ensure integration and interoperability.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An effective system to alert the public during emergencies can help reduce property damage and save lives. FEMA, in partnership with FCC and NOAA, is responsible for operating and maintaining the Emergency Alert System (EAS) at the federal level. In 2004, FEMA initiated the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) with the goal of integrating EAS and other public-alerting systems into a comprehensive alerting system. In April 2013, GAO reported that since its 2009 report, FEMA has taken actions to improve IPAWS capabilities and to increase federal, state, and local capabilities to alert the public, but barriers remain to fully implementing an integrated system. One such barrier is the inadequate public outreach on IPAWS capabilities. According to federal, state, and local officials GAO contacted, the public is generally unaware of IPAWS capabilities, especially alerts sent to mobile phones. Although FEMA officials told GAO that a training course to educate the public is under development, FEMA had conducted limited outreach to date to inform the general public about IPAWS alerts and capabilities beyond information on the FEMA website. Executive Order No. 13407 directs DHS to provide public education on using, accessing, and responding to the public alert and warning system. Because of limited public outreach, some state and local alerting authorities expressed concern that the public may ignore or opt out of receiving IPAWS alerts, even though these alerts may provide important, life-saving information. While FEMA has made efforts to improve outreach efforts with IPAWS stakeholders since 2009, FEMA officials said they have limited resources and experience in educating the general public on IPAWS. To more effectively and efficiently inform the American people on how to access and respond to potentially life-saving emergency alerts, GAO recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC and NOAA, conduct coordinated outreach to educate the American public on IPAWS capabilities, especially on the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which transmits alert to mobile, wireless phones. In 2015, GAO confirmed that FEMA issued a strategic outreach plan, which provided goals and objectives for increasing public awareness of IPAWS. FEMA worked with FCC and NOAA to identify best practices and opportunities to inform the American public on the Commercial Mobile Alert System (now called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). FEMA also worked with the Ad Council to create public service announcements (PSAs) on Commercial Mobile Alert System for radio and television. The PSA for radio were released to broadcasters in May 2013. FEMA also developed a webpage (http://www.ready.gov/alerts) that provides information on WEA, EAS, and NOAA Weather radio. Additionally, in 2014, FEMA released a 15-minute web-based training course called "IPAWS for the American People." The training is designed to educate the public about the key features and benefits of IPAWS as an alerting tool. Taken together, these efforts provide public education to the American public on the capabilities of IPAWS, including using and responding to the public alert system.

    Recommendation: To ensure that IPAWS is fully functional and capable of distributing alerts through multiple pathways as intended, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA, in conjunction with FCC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to conduct coordinated outreach to educate the American public on IPAWS capabilities, especially the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, FEMA initiated the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) with the goal of integrating the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and other public-alerting systems into a comprehensive alerting system. In April 2013, GAO reported that there are long-standing weaknesses that limit the effectiveness of the national-level EAS, including a lack of redundancy in how national-level EAS messages are disseminated to the public. GAO noted that FEMA relies solely on radio and television broadcast for a national-level EAS alert because the national-level EAS is not currently integrated with IPAWS capabilities. Furthermore, because a national-level alert would be provided in English and only through radio and television broadcasts, the alert may not be accessible to non-English speakers or individuals with disabilities. GAO recommended that FEMA develop a plan to disseminate a national-level alert via IPAWS to increase redundancy and communicate presidential alerts through multiple pathways. In 2016, GAO confirmed that FEMA developed local operating instructions to test dissemination of a national-level alert via IPAWS. Using these operating instructions, FEMA conducted nine tests that disseminated a national-level alert via IPAWS in 47 states and 2 U.S. territories, and successfully conducted a nationwide test with all states and territories on September 28, 2016. By integrating the national-level EAS with IPAWS, portions of the population--including individuals with disabilities and non-English speakers--will be more likely to receive or fully understand those alerts.

    Recommendation: To ensure that IPAWS is fully functional and capable of distributing alerts through multiple pathways as intended, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to develop a plan to disseminate a national-level alert via IPAWS to increase redundancy and communicate presidential alerts through multiple pathways.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Emergency Alert System (EAS) serves as the nation's primary alerting system. It provides the President the capability to issue alerts and communicate to the public in response to emergencies. Presidential EAS alerts, also known as national-level alerts, use a hierarchical broadcast-based distribution system to relay emergency messages. Broadcasts of national-level alerts are relayed by primary entry point stations across the country to radio and television stations that rebroadcast the audio and visual message to other broadcast stations, cable systems, and other EAS participants until all participants have been alerted. This retransmission of alerts from EAS participant to EAS participant is commonly referred to as a "daisy chain" distribution system. In November 2011, FEMA and FCC held the first-ever test of the national-level EAS. In 2013, GAO reported that although FCC rules require a nationwide EAS test to be conducted periodically, it was uncertain when the next test would occur. FEMA officials told GAO that they were continuing to work with FCC in determining corrective actions from the test results and would not hold another test until corrective actions were complete. GAO noted that regular nationwide EAS testing is essential to ensure that the system would work as intended during an emergency. Therefore, GAO recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, develop and implement a strategy for regularly testing the national-level EAS. In 2016, GAO confirmed that FCC established a national EAS test code and that FCC updated its rules to enable regular periodic EAS testing by FEMA. In collaboration with FCC, FEMA conducted a nationwide test of the EAS on September 28, 2016. Furthermore, FCC implemented a new Electronic Test Reporting System (ETRS) that improves EAS test data collection and reporting and required EAS participants to register in the ETRS by August 2016. The ETRS was tested in conjunction with a voluntary EAS test in Washington State in June 2016, and was used to capture and analyze results of the September 2016 nationwide test. As a result of ongoing, regular nationwide testing of EAS's relay distribution system, there is better assurance that EAS will work as intended should the President need to activate it to communicate with the American people.

    Recommendation: To ensure that IPAWS is fully functional and capable of distributing alerts through multiple pathways as intended, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, to develop and implement a strategy for regularly testing the national-level EAS, including examining the need for a national test code, developing milestones and time frames, improving data collection efforts, and reporting on after-action plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An effective system to alert the public during emergencies can help reduce property damage and save lives. FEMA, in partnership with FCC and NOAA, is responsible for operating and maintaining the Emergency Alert System (EAS) at the federal level. In 2004, FEMA initiated the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) with the goal of integrating EAS and other public-alerting systems into a comprehensive alerting system. Starting in April 2012, public-alerting authorities could use IPAWS to transmit wireless alerts via the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which are geo-targeted, text-like messages to mobile phones. In April 2013, GAO reported that FCC rules dictated the technical standards and protocols governing the wireless alerts and required alerts to be (1) sent to areas no larger than the county level and (2) limited to 90 characters. During GAO's review, several state and local alerting authorities raised concerns about the possibility of over alerting the public with wireless alerts since the alerts may not geo-target the specific area affected. The 90-character message limitations of these alerts were also raised as a challenge by FEMA and other alerting authorities to sending out clear and accurate alerts, as alerts may not contain enough information to be useful. Officials stated that some citizens might ignore or opt out of future mobile alerts if they received previous alerts that were not applicable to them. Furthermore, GAO reported that the only way state and local alerting authorities could potentially test CMAS is to send a live alert, which is not permissible under FCC rules. Although FCC's CMAS rules allow FEMA to test the system, according to FCC officials, these testing procedures do not extend to state and local alerting authorities that wish to use CMAS. As a result, FEMA officials told us they are working with FCC and other stakeholders to elevate the importance of clarifying rules for public-alerting partners, especially as it relates to how state and local alerting authorities can test mobile alerts using IPAWS. GAO recommended that FCC, in conjunction with FEMA, review and update rules governing CMAS, including those related to geo-targeting, character limitations, and testing procedures. In response to this recommendation, FCC adopted rules to improve wireless emergency alerts in September 2016. For example, FCC expanded the character limits of wireless alerts from 90 to 360 characters, noting that it will reduce public confusion caused by difficult-to-understand abbreviations and allow emergency managers to provide their communities with information that is clear and effective at encouraging swift protective action. FCC's new rules also cover geo-targeting requirements and testing. As a result of these new rules, state and local authorities are more likely to use these alerts and the public is less likely to opt out of the service.

    Recommendation: To ensure that CMAS is effectively used and that the EAS relay distribution network is capable of reliably communicating national-level alerts, the Chairman of FCC should, in conjunction with FEMA, review and update rules governing CMAS, including those related to geo-targeting, character limitations, and testing procedures.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Emergency Alert System (EAS) serves as the nation's primary alerting system. It provides the President the capability to issue alerts and communicate to the public in response to emergencies. Presidential EAS alerts, also known as national-level alerts, use a hierarchical broadcast-based distribution system to relay emergency messages. Broadcasts of national-level alerts are relayed by primary entry point stations across the country to radio and television stations that rebroadcast the audio and visual message to other broadcast stations, cable systems, and other EAS participants until all participants have been alerted. States may maintain EAS plans that contain procedures for the distribution of national-level alerts as well as other voluntary alerts generated by state and local alerting authorities and the National Weather Service. At the federal level, FCC, FEMA, and the National Weather Service implement EAS. In November 2011, FEMA and FCC conducted the first-ever nationwide EAS test. In 2013, GAO reported that the results of the nationwide EAS test--which a number of EAS participants could not effectively receive or retransmit--showed that the reliability of the EAS was questionable. At the time of GAO's review, FCC and FEMA had taken limited steps to address problems identified by EAS participants regarding the nationwide test. EAS participants and state and local alerting authorities GAO contacted stated that FCC, in conjunction with FEMA, could take action that would assist EAS participants in preparing, conducting, and reporting on future nationwide EAS tests. These actions include providing guidance to update state EAS plans. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC, in conjunction with FEMA, provide states with additional guidance to facilitate completion of updated state EAS plans. In 2017, GAO confirmed that FCC worked with FEMA to implement this recommendation. In particular, FEMA is a member of FCC's federal advisory committee, called the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC). FCC sought recommendations on its state EAS plan process from CSRIC and FEMA participated in the CSRIC working group that developed recommendations regarding EAS plans. Furthermore, in January 2016, FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which proposed specific guidance and requirements for EAS plans aimed at improving alerting organization at the state and local levels, including creation of a standard online template for all states to use. In the Notice, FCC proposed that state EAS plans include new elements (including organizational, operational, testing/outreach, and security elements), designed to enhance the value of state EAS plans as community alerting tools and establish a baseline level of information across states nationwide. As a result of the additional guidance provided to states, state EAS plans will fully detail the state's strategy for delivering national-level and other life-saving alerts.

    Recommendation: To ensure that CMAS is effectively used and that the EAS relay distribution network is capable of reliably communicating national-level alerts, the Chairman of FCC should, in conjunction with FEMA, provide states with additional guidance (e.g., templates of EAS plan) to facilitate completion of updated state EAS plans that include IPAWS-compatible equipment.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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