Recent events in New York City and New Jersey have reminded us of the importance of using the nation’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), and even more specifically, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). This attention stems from the use of the emergency notification method deployed by New York City public safety personnel to issue a WEA alert (one available component of IPAWS) to notify the public about a suspect sought in connection with terrorist events which occurred on September 19, 2016.
Some media sources have chosen to associate a negative spin on the use and performance of WEA rather than viewing it as an opportunity to help better educate and protect citizens during times of crisis. Overall, the WEA alert generated was an applicable and appropriate use of the IPAWS technology. Those who are directly connected with the mass notification industry may know there are technical limitations with WEA beyond the control of public safety officials; however, there are many valuable attributes that further support the use of this particular alerting mechanism. The main advantage is its ability to nearly instantaneously reach a much larger number of wireless devices and users in a targeted area– when information exchange is the most critical. In fact, WEA is arguably more effective at pushing alerts to the public than the TV-based emergency broadcasting system.
IPAWS has been slowly evolving within the public safety arena since its inception in 2011/12. The amount of approved Alerting Authorities has increased significantly and local public safety officials are finally beginning to incorporate IPAWS alerts within their mass notification plans and procedures more each day. Within our own client base, CodeRED has seen an appreciable increase in IPAWS usage in just the past few months alone.
No doubt local authorities need to be comfortable with this technology in order to send alerts through this additional channel. There is an understandable concern that recipients may not be familiar with the technology and therefore, community leaders are concerned about the public’s reaction. We’ve seen clients use IPAWS this year to alert residents of wildfire and flood evacuations, missing persons and Amber alerts, criminal suspects on the loose, interstate closures, telephone and E911 outages, as well as additional other relevant applications. Simply by adding this extra means of message delivery, clients were able to spread the message rapidly to a broader audience and enhance citizen safety.
At ECN, one of our core mottos we encourage clients to adopt, is to “use every tool in the notification tool box” when it comes to life threatening alerts or emergency notifications for the public. By utilizing every mode of dissemination in your power, you are fulfilling a critical component of your public safety responsibilities to serve and protect your citizen’s best interests and safety.
Remember, an emergency notification system’s sole focus is to reach as many people as possible with important information, in a timely manner. Every mode of dissemination used reaches another group of individuals that alternative modes may not have reached.
Public awareness and promotion of the IPAWS system is a necessary hurdle to overcome. Many of the published news articles posted in the aftermath of the recent events in New York reported the concern and surprise of a number of citizens. Each time a WEA alert is issued, jurisdictions must be cognizant that this may be the first time many citizens are receiving this type of alert and they may not understand what the alert is, why it is important and most importantly, who issued the alert.
It is also important to note that many published news articles seemed to encourage and instruct citizens how they can opt-out of receiving future WEA alerts – the opposite response of what first responders and public safety personnel desire. Opting out of these alerts harms our collective goal of reaching as many individuals as we can, as quickly as possible. From FEMA all the way to local jurisdictions, we all need to promote general public awareness efforts and encourage citizens to not opt out. Wherever citizens travel across the United States, they need to remain informed and up-to-date with emergency alerts and warnings, especially the types of notifications issued by IPAWS, the nation’s critical alert and warning infrastructure. Alert, inform and affect lives – we all need to do our part!