IPAWS/WEA: CMAText vs. Canned Messages

We’ve written on this topic before, but it never hurts to reiterate the message and push for change.

A recent story from West Virginia illustrates the risk of standard WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) messages.  (To be fair, we’re assuming the offending messages were not CMAtext, which are basically free form text messages).

To quote the story:

“Cell phone users received a message advising them to “evacuate now”.  The message was incomplete, lacking a specific location and details on what sparked the evacuation order.  The same, vague message was received multiple times by some residents, hours after the fire was extinguished and there was no longer a risk of danger.”

This is exactly the issue we discussed in November.  Standard WEA messages often use the phrase “In this area” to tell message recipients the location of an emergency, and rely on the geographical selection of the broadcast area, which is a function of of two factors: the IPAWS originating software and the method used by the cell phone carriers to pick the cell towers from which the message is broadcast.  But “in this area” is pretty vague to many people – including people quoted by the story.

We won’t guess at why the message was received  multiple times by some folks.  But this isn’t the first time that issue has been raised.

That training that is required of Originating Authorities (the people who can send messages) doesn’t discuss the effectiveness of message wording.  So public safety people who use IPAWS may find that the messages they send don’t work the way they expected.

We still think that IPAWS is a great tool.  And many people are using CMAText, which lets you choose the specific wording you want.  But as IPAWS and WEA become more common, it’s going to be incumbent on users of the system to understand what effective communication means in the context of the 90 characters that WEA messages allow.

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