Emergency Alerting: Agencies Need to Address Pending Applications and Monitor Industry Progress on System Improvements

GAO-20-294 Published: Feb 06, 2020. Publicly Released: Feb 06, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Emergency alerts can provide lifesaving information. FEMA manages the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, allowing public safety agencies to send alerts to cell phones, radios, and TVs during natural disasters or other emergencies.

FEMA has begun to modernize alerting capabilities with help from the FCC. However, some state and local public safety agencies cannot access the system and others have low confidence in using it. Also, without goals and performance measures for improvements made to wireless emergency alerts, the FCC can’t ensure the system is working as intended.

We are making 3 recommendations to address these concerns.

Cell phone with test emergency alert displayed.

Cell phone showing a test presidential alert on the screen

Cell phone showing a test presidential alert on the screen

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What GAO Found

Use of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) has increased since its launch in 2012. IPAWS enables authorized federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local alerting authorities to send a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) to mobile devices, such as cell phones and an Emergency Alert System (EAS) alert to media platforms, such as radios and television. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) operates IPAWS and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) establishes rules for telecommunications providers to deliver WEA and EAS alerts. A public safety agency must submit an application and receive approval from FEMA to become an IPAWS alerting authority. In September 2019, more than 1,400 alerting authorities had access to IPAWS, up from fewer than 100 authorities in 2013. All states have at least one state alerting authority, but gaps in local authority access remain (see figure) that could limit the timeliness of alerts as emergencies occur at the local level. GAO found 430 pending IPAWS applications as of September 2019, some of which dated back to 2012. FEMA has not established procedures to prioritize and follow up with applicants and FEMA officials acknowledged that doing so would be beneficial.

Areas Covered by Local and Tribal Authorities That Can Send Wireless Emergency Alerts and Use the Emergency Alert System, as of September 2019

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FEMA and FCC have taken steps to modernize IPAWS and improve alerting. For example, FEMA has made system upgrades and FCC has made various WEA improvements, such as requiring wireless phone carriers to provide more precise geographic targeting of alerts. Prior to these improvements, officials from many alerting authorities said the inability to geographically target alerts with accuracy made the officials reluctant to send WEA messages. FCC intends to partner with certain localities to test geographic targeting and, according to FCC officials, plans to use other tests to learn about how the improvements perform during emergencies. However, FCC has not developed goals and performance measures for these efforts. Doing so would help FCC more clearly assess whether the WEA improvements are working as intended. Furthermore, having specific performance information could increase alerting authorities' confidence in and use of IPAWS.

Why GAO Did This Study

Public alerts and warnings are critical to protect lives and provide information during emergencies, such as wildfires and floods. The IPAWS Modernization Act, enacted in 2016, required FEMA, in consultation and coordination with FCC, to enhance and test the capabilities of IPAWS and increase its adoption among state and local public safety agencies.

GAO was asked to review the federal response to recent natural disasters. This report examines, among other things: (1) trends in the use of IPAWS and (2) actions that FEMA and FCC have taken to modernize IPAWS and increase its adoption.

GAO analyzed relevant data and documentation and assessed FCC's efforts against leading government performance management practices and FEMA and FCC's efforts against internal control standards. GAO interviewed federal officials involved in emergency alerting. GAO also interviewed a non-generalizable selection of IPAWS alerting authorities and applicants, local governments, public safety and industry associations, and communications companies. GAO selected alerting authorities that experienced different types of disasters and threats to public safety from 2017 to 2019.

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GAO is making three recommendations, including that FEMA establish procedures to prioritize and address pending IPAWS applications and that FCC develop goals and performance measures to monitor the WEA improvements. FEMA concurred with GAO's recommendations. FCC stated it was taking steps to gather data to inform the development of metrics as GAO recommended.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission The Chairman of FCC should develop specific, measurable goals and performance measures for its efforts to monitor the performance of new WEA capabilities, such as enhanced geo-targeting and expanded alert message length. (Recommendation 1)
As of February 2022, FCC officials told us they were taking actions to address this recommendation and expected the efforts to be complete by December 2022. We will continue to monitor FCC's efforts and provide updated information when it is received.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Director of the IPAWS program should document how it plans to address key actions needed to educate alerting authorities in their use of IPAWS and implement a mechanism that will allow FEMA to regularly and systematically obtain and analyze feedback on alerting authorities' educational needs. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
Public alerts and warnings can serve to protect lives and provide critical information during emergencies. Various "alerting authorities" such as federal, state, or county officials can issue public alerts via FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is a comprehensive public-alerting system that provides alerts through broadcast media and wirelessly to mobile devices. FEMA is required by law to instruct and educate the alerting authorities in the use of IPAWS. In 2020, we reported that FEMA assessed alerting authorities' educational needs and found that these alerting authorities need more training and practice in using IPAWS and experienced challenges with using their alerting software. Our interviews with selected alerting authorities revealed similar concerns, including that a lack of confidence is a potential barrier in the alerting authorities using IPAWS. Although FEMA officials told us they intend to periodically obtain information from alerting authorities about their needs, these plans have not been documented. We also found that less than 20 percent of state, territorial, and local alerting authorities had sent a wireless emergency alert through IPAWS as of October 1, 2019. Therefore, we recommended that FEMA document how it plans to educate alerting authorities in their use of IPAWS and implement a mechanism that will allow FEMA to obtain and analyze feedback on alerting authorities' educational needs. In 2021, we confirmed that FEMA documented its plans to educate alerting authorities and assess their educational needs by establishing the IPAWS Program Planning Toolkit. In doing so, FEMA identified gaps in the current available IPAWS training information and developed comprehensive guidelines with input from alerting authorities. FEMA officials said the team establishing the toolkit worked closely with stakeholders from across the alerting ecosystem and sought input from a range of state, local, tribal, and territorial public safety agencies; academics; broadcasters; and industry. In developing materials for the toolkit, the team frequently checked in with stakeholders to ensure the materials were on track or if they needed modification to meet the needs of the alerting authorities. FEMA also established mechanisms for obtaining feedback from the alerting authorities. According to FEMA officials, all IPAWS outreach engagements include opportunities for the alerting community to provide feedback, share concerns or issues, and make recommendations for needed information. FEMA officials said they also include a solicitation for feedback along with a hyperlink to the IPAWS mailbox on all communication sent to alerting authorities and during webinars and day-to-day activities working with alerting authorities. The FEMA officials said all avenues for feedback are monitored and the responses influence the development of future content that is shared in a variety of interactive and educational distribution formats. As a result of these efforts, FEMA is helping alerting authorities increase their proficiency and confidence in using IPAWS. In addition, by implementing a mechanism to regularly obtain and analyze alerting authorities' needs, FEMA is better positioned to understand if these needs are changing and develop educational efforts to address them.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Director of the IPAWS program should establish procedures to prioritize pending IPAWS applications and to follow up with applicants to address these applications. (Recommendation 3)
As of February 2022, FEMA is actively working to address this recommendation and expects all actions to be complete by December 2022. We will continue to monitor FEMA's efforts and provide updated information when it is received.

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