FEMA, Sandia Launch Integrated Public Alert and Warning Capability

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with Sandia National Laboratories, have created a "next generation" system that will help ensure reliable, efficient communication to citizens in the event of hurricanes and other potentially catastrophic events.

FEMA's aim with the new Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is to deliver targeted alerts and warnings over more communications devices to more people, anywhere, and at any time, a disaster strikes. Among other responsibilities, Sandia is creating the secure architecture, standards, protocols and methodologies for message security and distribution.

In partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sandia National Laboratories is designing and deploying a pilot alert and warning system that will provide a robust, multi-faceted path to ensure effective public communications during a federal, state, or local emergency.

Known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the program, which began piloting on Aug. 1 in the midst of the 2007 hurricane season, is administered by FEMA for the Department of Homeland Security and is initially supporting several states and local jurisdictions in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.

IPAWS is designed to transform national emergency alerts from audio-only messages delivered over radios and televisions into a sophisticated, comprehensive system that can reliably and efficiently send alerts by voice, text and video to all Americans, including those with disabilities or who cannot understand English. FEMA’s aim is to deliver targeted alerts and warnings over more communications devices to more people, anywhere, and at any time a disaster strikes.

New System Offers Broad Connectivity

FEMA’s current emergency alert system, known as the Emergency Alert System (EAS), has been in place since 1994, replacing the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) that launched in 1963. EAS allows the president to transmit a national alert within 10 minutes to citizens, and it allows state and local government officials to send messages during non-federal emergencies.

The new IPAWS system will include the deployment of an enhanced Web Alert and Relay Network (WARN) that provides emergency operations staff with collaboration tools, public access Web sites and alert and warning notification facilities. WARN also features an “opt-in” capability that allows citizens to sign up to receive alert messages via pagers, cell phones, email and other communications devices. The WARN system also includes an Emergency Telephone Notification (ETN) component that provides automated calling of all residents in a selected geographic area, and a Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Notification System (DHNS) that provides information to the hearing impaired using American Sign Language videos on the Internet and on personal communication devices.

Each of the pilot program technologies will be installed and tested through December 2007.

Sandia’s Role

“At Sandia, IPAWS is a clear New Mexico/California collaboration,” says Ron Glaser, who is serving as the lab’s program manager for IPAWS. Technical teams at Sandia’s Albuquerque and Livermore, Calif., sites, led by Glaser’s New Mexico-based Systems Engineering group, are working together to develop and deploy the initial IPAWS capability.

Specifically, says Glaser, Sandia is creating the secure architecture, standards, protocols and methodologies for message security and distribution of alerts and warnings. Sandia also is developing the certification program for companies to qualify for access to the IPAWS communications framework. The architecture and messaging standards developed through this program will be fed back to standards-setting organizations, such as OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards).

The lab will be demonstrating and evaluating IPAWS components during pilot activities this summer. WARN, the first IPAWS component, is integrating existing vendor-supplied technologies to provide a warning capability that can be used during this year’s hurricane season. The initial roll-out became operational on Aug. 1.

“Because the lab doesn’t have a technology dog in this fight, we’re seen by FEMA as an honest broker,” says Sandia/California engineer Jeff Jortner, whose team is leading the initial WARN roll-out. “We understand the technology that we’re integrating, but at the same time we have no product or service we’re trying to sell. That gives us unique credibility in the eyes of our sponsors."

Lab analysts at Sandia also are working with emergency management staff in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico to understand specific message targeting capabilities and needs, and various public alert and warning communication options for multiple communities of interest across federal, state, local and tribal organizations.

“Our discussions with the New Mexico-based communities of interest (which have included emergency operations managers from Bernalillo County, the City of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico) have been particularly valuable,” says Heidi Ammerlahn, who manages Sandia’s Computational Sciences and Mathematics Research department in California.

Those jurisdictions, she says, have brought to light several issues of which researchers otherwise may not have been aware. Some local officials, for instance, may not think so much about technology itself, but rather about whether individuals without technology training will be able to take advantage of IPAWS features and actually use the system properly.

Jill Hruby, who directs the lab’s Center for Homeland Security and Defense Systems in California, said Sandia’s work on IPAWS may be a harbinger of things to come. “Though this the first major project on communications architecture and information surety for DHS, it likely won’t be the last,” said Hruby. “If we continue to be successful with this project, I think there are other opportunities to use this same architecture for other complex communication systems that require a high degree of interoperability and a high degree of data validation.”

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