How do people want their emergency advice?

There is a great deal of focus at present on providing the right advice to the community before, during and after emergencies – in the right way, at the right time and in language and format people can understand, even in the face of a calamity.

But are we considering the community needs, or the emergency agency needs?

Research in Far North Queensland by Sandy Astills [] suggests sometimes it will be useful to look more carefully at how emergency agencies and disseminators are delivering information.

The Australian Journal of Emergency Management contained an article on these dilemma’s by Sandy, and she then spoke to ABC Local Radio Far North Qld broadcaster Richard Dinnen, on July 23, 2014.


The US national emergency warning system

Threats of nuclear war, nuclear meltdown, and catastrophic level natural disasters have resulted in the US creating an integrated warning service that is effective, reliable, flexible, comprehensive, local and personal.

It’s called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and includes several major components: the Emergency Alert System (EAS)  (don’t confuse this with the phone-based local warning system operating in Australia under the same name.) which leverages the radio and television broadcasting, the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS) that communicates to cellular phones, and an interface to the US’s National Weather Service’s All Hazards Weather Radio network. (See next post for details of IPAWS and CMAS, andf previous post for NWS)

Although EAS was established and is understood to be a contingency platform in the event of other communication failures, it has become at the local level, a primary warning system.

In the 1950’s the US legislated to create a public early warning system in response to the threat of a nuclear armed attack from the Soviet Union. It was assumed the US President would need to be able to address the population immediately. The first system was set up under the electro-magnetic radiation bill because AM and FM transmitters were used for targeting of warheads, it came under this legislative sphere.

After the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960’s, the system was enhanced and modernised and named with Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).

It was updated again in the 1990’s to take advantage of new communications mechanisms and renamed the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and after Hurricane Katrina, was modified yet again, to deal with specific events.

And it’s been enhanced after technological developments, and now embraces the cell phone system which also rebroadcasts messages.

The nature of the US society, the culture driven by private ownership, and the  technology available to the US, have driven the developments.

Initially the system was simple and elegant – radio and TV transmitters would be connected to a control room operated by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (or its then equivalent) and the President would be able to speak to the public within ten minutes.

It was robust and virtually fail safe. The signal was provided to multiple and numerous “primary” radio and TV broadcasters in any or all regions. They would then be responsible for rebroadcasting instantly and at least two other broadcasters in their region would be expected to retransmit. Those broadcasters then rebroadcast as well, until nearly all radio and TV stations were connected. They called it a “daisy chain” which describes it nicely. There are 20,000 transmitters attached to the system.

 It was tested nationwide for the first time in November 2011 and while something like 20 percent of the broadcasts, at the hyper-local level, failed, the test was deemed a success because technical strengthens and weaknesses were identified and can now be addressed.

Broadcasters were required to install the reception equipment at their own cost and as part of the broadcast licence agreement,  but stand by generators for the primary stations were funded by a government program.  While this was initially pushed as a public service function for broadcasters,  in reality competitive forces have ensured that all the major broadcasters take the EAS seriously.

Initially the system was set up to take Presidential messages. In 1995 it was decided that it would be enhanced to allow local and state emergency messages to be inserted, and the National Weather Service was connected to it in 2006. In this way National Weather alerts are monitored, and frequently rebroadcast, on all radio and TV stations, as well as NOAA National Weather Radio.

The guiding principles have since been extended to the internet and mobile platforms. In this way the system has become what’s now known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

One of the major principles of IPAWS is that it is an open network. All emergency agencies, as well as the National Weather Service are able to use its operating standards and protocols to issue warnings.

“Disseminators” receive data in the same way at the same time for redistribution.

This has become vital to the system’s flexibility.  Initially the content was directed at radio and TV, and then extended to National Weather Service.

The development of the internet and RSS feeds meant that some broadcasters on digital platforms wanted the content.

And finally with the advent of local area cell broadcasting, telecommunications firms wanted to enhance the value of the handset, and they too receive all content for rebroadcasting.  Approximately 400 commercial mobile service providers have licensed for content, and 100 are already broadcasting warnings messages to those who choose to buy handsets which are emergency warning connected. Embedded data enables all outlets to be automated.

The system has never been used for a Presidential address.  Antwane Johnson, the Director of IPAWS,  says  it doesn’t mean there have never been widespread threat to warrant that.

“It’s a contingency system and was only ever to be used if other telecommunications systems failed.” The telecommunications and broadcast industry has never failed, so was not used in the missile crisis, or the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks.

Meeting Antwane Johnson, FEMA, October 2012.

Mr Johnson works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.  “Our goal is to improve the nation’s capability to ensure under all conditions the President can talk to the public, but when the President isn’t using the system, local officials can use the capabilities to send alerts to their local citizens to enhance public safety. We develop, maintain and operate the system.”

Manny Centeno, a program manager for IPAWS, says the standard is to be able to broadcast to the entire nation in ten minutes, and participants or disseminators are required to be able to rebroadcast almost instantly when a new alert is received. The system is automated: “We can do much better than 10 minutes if not better. It’s virtually instant.

“Although the legislation provides that we make the system available for Presidential messages, almost all of the use is currently at the local and state level, and through NOAA weather warnings.”

“The only mandatory requirement is that the system be in place for a Presidential address. All other content is voluntary, but there is tremendous private sector involvement, being driven by their licence requirement to serve the public interest – that’s the primary reason the US allocated spectrum to broadcasters.

Some broadcasters were initially worried about liability, for carrying warning messages, and for failure to carry them, and for hoaxes.

Senders of alert messages are validated in the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN system, through a series of cyber security protocols before rebroadcast but there are no other filters.


Broadcast community partnerships in the US

The media and broadcast in the US are highly valued partners in disseminating information and warnings about all hazards in a way that isn’t apparent in Australia.

There are three elements on which the partnerships are based which serve the US well – legislation, obligation and co-operation. All three are, to some extent, missing from the landscape in Australia.


The US set up CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation, or CONELRAD (1951 – 1963), and the Emergency Broadcast System, or EBS (1963 – 1997) to deal with the threat posed by the Cold War. Legislation was passed which compelled radio stations to participate in the program at their own cost, and to ensure they could carry all Presidential level warnings and addresses.

“It is a condition of their licence agreement now that TV and radio broadcast companies serve the public interest,” says Manny Centeno, the Program Manager of the Integrated Public Alert and Warnings system with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are using public airwaves, the public owns them.”

Jim Bremer, the program director at KQMS Newstalk Radio backs up the observation, ”We’re licensed to serve the public.”

Jim Bremer, EP at KQMS Reading

In 1997, the EBS modernised into the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, and in 2006 President Bush issued Executive Order 13047, which required that an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System be built. The legislation was changed to enable the system to be used by state and county agencies to alert their community to potential hazards. In all counties now the system is used frequently to alert the community to weather hazards, and “AMBER alerts“ – notifications of recent child abductions.

 The Commercial Mobile Alert System is one of several systems within IPAWS. The Commercial Mobile Service Providers’ decision to broadcast alerts and warnings is voluntary. “We have 400 telecommunications providers in the US, and within a few months of the process being set up, we already have over 100 providers who’ve opted in,” said Manny Centeno.”

The cost to send these alerts: “Nothing at all, they do it voluntarily.”

Phone companies will receive alerts via the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN, and then broadcast them to the public in areas which have been geo-targeted by emergency alerting authorities.

To ensure the process is smooth, the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA set standards and protocols, developed a common operating system for emergency agencies and provide training. The FCC requires a monthly test of the system.

In addition, the National Weather Service was provided with funding to set up its own radio network – the National Weather Radio. With more than 1100 transmitters, it’s a robust and comprehensive system, which has come to be relied upon by a sizeable proportion of the US community.


Legislation alone cannot compel organisations to ensure that all aspects of their content meet the requirements of Federal Government or the needs of their communities. Only the “Presidential Address” is obligatory, all other warning content is carried voluntarily. But the competitive nature of the private sector has ensured that all participants feel obliged to participate. The telecommunications companies created demand for phone handsets that are warning compatible.

The radio and TV stations know that in an emergency their competitors will be broadcasting warnings, and they can’t afford to ignore the possible impact on their audience reach.

TV stations play the most important role, with weather presenters being the go-to people when an emergency begins. TV watching seems to be universal. Homes, clubs, bars, restaurants, schools, public gathering places like airports all seem to have TV networks switched on 24/7.

Jim Bremer from KQMS estimates that his company spends $20,000 on the hardware to receive EAS content, and there are numerous stations in his comparatively small company.


“Tremendous private sector involvement is the key to the success of CMAS and EAS,” says Wade Witmer, FEMA’s Deputy Director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

There is no doubt that emergency managers are grateful for the support they are receiving from broadcasters.

But to ensure the process is integrated, there has to be high level and frequent co-operation. FEMA and the Federal Communication Commission have a monthly meeting with national broadcasters and telecommunications companies, to ensure the systems remain technically robust and to create a standard for sharing of information between emergency agencies and the disseminators.

“You have to engage the broadcasters. A lot of them don’t trust each other” says Manny Centeno, in a phrase that will resonate with broadcasters and emergency agencies everywhere. “But some broadcasters do call themselves first responders, which shows they are fully engaged.”

In addition to the nationwide meetings, each state has a meeting of State broadcasters and their emergency management agencies each month.

The National Weather Service also reflects the expectation that there will be leadership and co-operation. Warnings’ broadcasters meet their local and regional broadcasters frequently to extend understanding. Additionally, the NWS set up NWSchat, to talk directly to broadcasters to ensure their message is well understood and useful.


Howard Price, the emergency manager at the American Broadcast Corporation, which runs radio and TV stations and networks across the US, sums up the three elements nicely: “It’s about public interest, convenience and necessity.” The public interest is obvious but why convenience? “Because FEMA, NWS and FCC created the platforms which we plug into to receive all the warnings and content.” Necessity? “That’s just competition to retain listenership and audience.”

The partnership model was started by the private sector. “Richard Rudman, the Director of Engineering at CBS started the “Partnership for Public Warning” says Howard Price. “We also started the Media Security and Advisory Council after 9/11. During Hurricane Katrina, Entercom, which owns one of their local stations never went off air. They set the gold standard for emergency broadcasting.”

Howard Price is proud of the role the broadcasters play in issuing warnings and information in the US. “EAS is a good system, but it has to be defended, and the local stations have to practice using it. The total cost for ABC to implement the mandatory system on its own network runs to five figures, and no-one here has ever suggested the Government should pay.”

Nevertheless the companies retain editorial control. “We put warnings on every station. It’s good for the warnings to be on during kids watching time as their parents are often watching with them. But the ABC never puts an unverified warning to air. No talk station in their right mind will do that.”

Charles W. McCobb

Program Manager

IPAWS Program Office /NCP


The Pink Firetruck

Fire fighters at Victoria, British Columbia, got into the spirit of Breast cancer awareness month and changed the colour of their main pumper. The truck will remain pink for just a month. Some of the crew wear pink t shirts under their standard issue blue open necked shirts as well.

The hose on the front bumper has been tied to represent the Breast Cancer ribbon!