Wireless Emergency Alerts. Who’s in Charge?

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are 90-character text messages broadcast to mobile phones as part of FEMA’s IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert Warning System).  These alerts are meant to help keep people safe.  But who gets to send out these notifications?

This post summarizes key points from “Best Practices in Wireless Emergency Alerts”.

Only approved Alerting Authorities may send out WEA alerts.  At the county level, several agencies may be authorized to send out WEA’s depending on the nature of the emergency.  Becoming an Alerting Authority requires choosing a software provider (or writing your own), filling out some paperwork with FEMA, getting approval from your state, and completing the training.

Once approved, potentially any governmental agency can send out WEA messaging.  The fire department can send alerts about explosive fires, criminal activity alerts can be sent by the police department and extreme weather alerts can be sent by the emergency management agency. The types of messages sent and who sends them should be decided prior to an emergency taking place so procedures and protocols are set and followed.

Inter-agency and intra-agency communication is important.  Prior to a WEA being sent out, the personnel in charge of other communication methods such as the Emergency Management Agency’s (EMA) Twitter, Facebook, and webpage, as well as the 911 center, should be notified as well. These could be used to elaborate on the details of the emergency or to answer questions that the WEA can’t cover due to its 90-character limit. If a citizen who has received a WEA wants to learn more about what is happening, these platforms can provide useful information.

In some cases, such as a wildfire or criminal on the run, the emergency may spread beyond an agency’s geographical jurisdiction. In this case, it is the responsibility of the agency to alert the agency in surrounding jurisdictions ASAP and – hopefully – before a WEA is sent out. Communication and coordination between these agencies is important and ensures that citizens of both jurisdictions are receiving the same, pertinent information.

When the WEA is sent, it is sent out by the agency that is best suited to, determined by a deliberate plan. Ideally, the WEA a citizen receives should be the product of a plan that has been mapped out well before the emergency takes place.

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