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Best Practices for Alerting Authorities Using Wireless Emergency Alerts

The Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS) is a FEMA communications system available to Federal, State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (FSLTT) officials to warn the public of an impending threat and/or of a public security incident and provide information on corresponding protective actions.

Best Practices on Sending Alerts

FEMA’s position on Alerting, Warning, and Public Notification (AWN) is that emergencies are local, and therefore it is the responsibility and discretion of local elected officials, or their delegates, to provide timely notification to their jurisdiction(s).

  • The decision to issue a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) to the public is a matter of local official emergency communications plans, policies and procedures.
  • FEMA does not provide or impose any limits or restrictions on the criteria for Authorized Alerting Authorities (AAs) to issue a WEA to the public.

Message content

FEMA does not monitor, review, edit, approve, or disapprove of the text content of WEA messages written and distributed by AA. Alert content, time of transmission, event code used, area targeted, duration, and decision to update or cancel an AWN are the sole responsibility of an AA.

  • An effective EEA includes enough information for the public to understand the incident and risk and to guide and urge the public to take appropriate protective action.
  • Effective WEAs include and clearly communicate: the trusted source sender; description of the event; location of the incident; protective measures to be taken; orientation/expiration time or duration of incident; and a URL or phone number to direct people to more information.

To note

Reference your Memorandum of Understanding with FEMA IPAWS, Appendix C, IPAWS-OPEN Rules of Conduct.

  • Many mobile phones in use today support WEA messages up to 360 characters. FEMA encourages AAs to use the longer message space to provide more complete information and to include a web address if more detailed and/or visual information will help the public take appropriate action. A base message requirement of 90 characters, in addition to the optional 360 character message, is in place for the foreseeable future as wireless carriers complete their network upgrades.
  • WEAs support English and Spanish languages. FEMA recommends including a Spanish version of WEAs for broader reach.

When to send notifications

An appropriate protocol should be established and documented to help decision makers determine whether to send a WEA. This includes reviewing criteria for local threats and hazards in accordance with local emergency plans, policies and procedures:

  • Does a situation require the public to take immediate action to avoid or mitigate damage to life and property?
  • Is there a high probability of a situation occurring and you need to warn the public quickly?
  • Is there a missing and endangered person that the public should know about?
  • Should the public be notified of a public safety situation, such as a 911 outage, boil water advisory, or ongoing response or recovery resources?

Additional Considerations for When to Send Notifications

  • Does the event require immediate notification, regardless of time of day, or can it wait?
  • Will the distinctive audible tones that accompany a WEA annoy recipients or disrupt business unnecessarily? The behavior of the mobile phone and the sound accompanying a WEA are intentionally disruptive to draw attention to an urgent situation and may alarm an individual and the public.
  • About half of cell phones do not yet support WEA location-based “enhanced geo-targeting”. It is likely that many cell phones located more than 20 miles from a target alert area will receive a WEA intended for the public inside the target alert area.

Policies and Procedures

FEMA advises warning authorities and warning administrators to develop and implement sound policies and procedures, coupled with routine training and drills, using the training and demonstration environment of FEMA IPAWS Technical Support Services.

  • The IPAWS Office within FEMA’s National Continuity Programs provides guidance on the effective use of IPAWS services. Upon request, the IPAWS office can review alerting authority plans and can recommend ways to close gaps and improve internal protections.
  • When issuing a WEA, AAs should review the relevant message fields prior to transmission. Rushed alerts with poor wording can be ineffective and further complicate an incident. To avoid errors, pre-script messages with as much information as possible before an event.
  • The Alert Authority should establish security procedures to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized alert transmission. All alert authorities should have a plan to follow up and correct any alerts sent in error.