Federal Agencies Address Emergency Information Dissemination in the Age of Social Media

When you need important – perhaps even life-or-death – information, you want it now. And with Twitter and smartphones, you probably assume such instant communication should be possible. In response to this evolution in the way we communicate, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) are working to modernize the dissemination of national warnings and alerts.

FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which includes the S&T-lead Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS), will create an integrated system for the nation's alerts and warnings to authorities with a range of message delivery options and multiple communications pathways. The goal is to reach as many people as quickly as possible.

CMAS will disseminate three primary types of messages: presidential messages; America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts; and alerts regarding imminent threats to life and property to specific, geo-targeted areas across the nation. This capability will be available to support local, state, tribal and territorial alert and warning authorities.

Alerting authorities will use the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard to disseminate their messages for the public via the IPAWS Alert Aggregator. This aggregator will disseminate the message to citizens, making them accessible via several communications channels, including television, radio, mobile phone, Internet, public signage, etc.

According to Denis Gusty, the Alerts & Warnings program manager at DHS S&T, CAP ideally will “allow an emergency manager to type a single message into a system that can push it through multiple media channels at once, including social media.”

Social Media

Gusty and his team also are developing best practices for the integration of social media into the IPAWS program. Gusty is leveraging First Responder Communities of Practice as a centralized virtual location for the project team to store and share best practices that are collected and developed with partners across all levels of government.

For example, the project team currently is using a wiki within the "Make America Safer through Social Media" Community of Practice to document best practices gleaned from interviews with public safety professionals across the country, to share and store case studies and recommendations and to develop a roadmap for how social media fits into the alert and warning domain.

Gusty explained that emergency managers see great potential for social media as a two-way form of communication with the public.

"It's more than pushing out a message,” he explained. “The emergency managers want the public to be able to provide information back – such as report of wildfires to these officials, who can then inform the broader public through a trusted communications source.”

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