Your IPAWS Update: What Emergency Officials Need to Know

Staying up to date on IPAWS guidance and best practices is key to improving your community’s ability to prepare and recover from critical events. 

By following these tips and best practices, emergency officials can proactively leverage their alerting system to protect citizens when every second counts.

IPAWS Alert Pathways Guidance and Helpful Tips

To maximize effectiveness of the three IPAWS alert pathways, pay particular attention to the following:

Emergency Alert System (EAS)

    • These messages are exclusively for television and radio broadcast transmission.
    • They can be delivered in two languages simultaneously.
    • For both radio and TV, the message for broadcast is limited to 1600 characters.
    • One supplementary audio clip may be attached to each message.
    • For TV, as the audio announcement plays, the written message will also crawl across the screen, typically twice.
    • Only use Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) codes. EAS does not recognize polygons.
    • FIPS codes and Event codes are monitored by your LP1 broadcasters.
    • Your launch to IPAWS is not complete until you go back to your broadcasters and verify they’re monitoring for your FIPS codes and Event codes. Do NOT assume the LP1 will automatically do so.
    • During live IPAWS testing, use Required Weekly Test (RWT), Required Monthly Test (RMT) or Practice/Demo (DMO). All other programmed codes will be broadcast; therefore, accidental transmission may result if you use a code other than RWT, DMO or RMT during a test.

Phone showing a national alert test

In Control: A Guide to Navigating Emergency Alerting With Authority and Precision

Use this first-of-its-kind guide to stop hesitating and use IPAWS to send life-saving alerts with confidence.

Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA)

    • These messages are sent to cell phones via push broadcast through cellular service towers. Push broadcasts will still be delivered even when regular text messages and phone calls over wireless devices are jammed.
    • Messages can go out in Spanish or English simultaneously, with a mandatory minimum of 90 characters in English and up to four blocks of 90 and 360 characters total.
    • Supplementary audio clips cannot be attached; WEA only recognizes a typed message.
    • The 90-character minimum is a requirement because all cell phones can receive this message length. While some cell phones can receive the full 360 characters, this is dependent on:
      • The cellular provider
      • Individual acceptance of software updates to the phone
    • Best practice is to put out all the information available in those four blocks of 90 and 360 in order to provide as much detail to as many people as possible.
    • Delivery is based on the recipient’s geographic location (proximity to a cell tower). The cellular providers determine when and where notifications are received, so make sure to contact those providers to determine range distribution and geographic overlap parameters. Each provider has different policies for WEA.
    • Use FIPS or Polygon. If no Polygon is provided, FIPS is the default.
    • Polygons and Geographic Information System (GIS) overlays are restricted to 100 nodes.
    • For live IPAWS testing, use Demonstration Message (DMO) handling code only.
    • “Cancel” will stop an active push broadcast.
    • “Update” will cancel an active alert and send a new one.

NOAA Weather Radio (NWEM)

    • These messages run on radio frequencies outside the normal AM or FM broadcast bands.
    • Agencies cannot attach supplementary audio clips.
    • Messages go out in English only, with Spanish available at the direction of your Weather Field Office (WFO).
    • You can identify a Requesting Agency for NWEM.
    • Your WFO will review and edit each message to conform to the NOAA text-to-speech standards. Therefore, these alerts will be delayed until that process is completed by human interaction.
    • Updates are not handled as emergencies, so best practice is to send a new alert.
    • Use FIPS codes only. NWEM does not integrate with maps at this time.
    • For testing codes, check with your local WFO.

These updates and recommendations are current as of Fall 2022. However, FEMA posts monthly information tips, and emergency officials can check this resource on a regular basis to stay up to date.

IPAWS Best Practices for Emergency Officials

Training, testing and practice are essential to effectively launch IPAWS alerts when a critical event strikes. Start by creating an IPAWS user policy to make procedures crystal clear and verify all personnel review it. Follow these tips to ensure everyone stays on track, while preventing misuse and over-alerting:

1. Conduct Regular Testing. Include a periodic testing requirement for all users to stay fresh and up to date on the three alert pathways. Conduct monthly proficiency drills with your staff, dispatchers and anyone else involved in launching IPAWS messages. Rehearsals should be conducted exclusively in the test track, following the parameters for each alert pathway.

Practice using the codes and writing messages within the prescribed character limits. The CodeRED IPAWS software allows users to practice within the test track, which is a great feature for building familiarity and dispelling fears of complexity. During drills and practice, always confirm the test messages include “TEST – This is only a Test Message – TEST.”

2. Construct Messages Clearly. When crafting alerts, remember they should be brief and instructive. It’s important to create templates in advance to streamline your alerting process. When an emergency happens, you can fill in the blanks and make tweaks where needed, rather than starting from scratch under stress. The CodeRED IPAWS tool can help you build templates, and you can also monitor the national alerts feed to see how other agencies are constructing messages.

3. Coordinate Locally. This cannot be emphasized enough. Interagency cooperation and communication are the basis for effective alerting. A checklist can help your local counterparts supply the details for alerts. A standardized form for the uniform gathering of information should outline all of the details to create a given alert. This will prevent delays and confusion caused by going back and forth to obtain the necessary information.

4. Maintain Records and Statistics. To utilize actionable intelligence from all three alert pathways, ensure you’re preserving data for analysis. All outcomes should be tracked and recorded to create statistics to serve as a basis for recommendations as new cases develop. This includes, but is not limited to, the details of search and rescue missions, such as the average length of time to locate missing persons and average geographic span of search grids in cases of successful recovery.

5. Leverage Technology. WEA messages to cell phones can now include hyperlinks, so recipients can click for more detailed information, such as posters, photos and ongoing updates. The content can then be texted and posted on other platforms and community pages. This helps to engage and empower people during critical events while simultaneously preventing frustration caused by alerts containing only enough information to be frightening.

Most agency websites can’t handle the extreme increase in traffic resulting from a hyperlink, but technology can help overcome this. One agency was able to work with Twitter to set up a unique alerts page on which everyone can see all of the information available via the hyperlink, without subscribing to the app. This helps to allay concerns over tracking of government app usage, which has caused people to miss important alerts.

6. ALWAYS use every tool in your toolbox for maximum success in meeting your emergency alert and warning needs!

IPAWS in the Real World

The highway patrol in one state experienced notable success when they used an IPAWS alert to find a missing 6-year-old child who was autistic and non-verbal. The call came into the local police department on a night with seasonally lower temperatures for the region. This weather combined with the child’s past behavioral diagnosis made immediate search and rescue efforts even more urgent.

After reviewing their WEA data from prior missing persons cases involving children, the patrol officers recommended a different search grid than was originally proposed. They promptly sent an alert to a corresponding target audience within the geographic area. Within 15 minutes of receiving the alert, a local couple found the child and she was rescued.

This success story speaks to the power of combining records and statistics, efficient alerting and coordinated local efforts.

By keeping these tips in mind and working with the alert pathways in advance, officials can improve the effectiveness of their IPAWS launches during an emergency. Familiarity builds muscle memory and mitigates the impact of duress on cognitive processing during critical events. When lives are at stake, every action, lack thereof or delay has the potential for severe consequences.

To learn more about best practices for sending IPAWS alerts and to access helpful tips, download our first-of-its-kind guide In Control: A Guide to Navigating Emergency Alerting with Authority and Precision.

Don Hall

Don Hall is a certified emergency manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers, and former OnSolve Government Relations Director (retired). Don has more than 40 years of experience developing and implementing emergency plans and procedures. His public safety career includes 20 years as an emergency manager in Calvert County, MD, Jacksonville, FL and Washington D.C. He has spent 10 years in law enforcement and 911 emergency communications respectively and has a cumulative total of more than 42 years of active-duty experience in Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland.