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.