FEMA announces next-generation EAS protocols

The Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has adopted a new digital message format for the nation's next-generation emergency alert and warning network, called the Integrated Alert Public Warning System (IPAWS). The new recommended method for distributing emergency messaging includes the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.2 Standard, developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

CAP information is important because EAS is limited to a few characters across the bottom of a TV screen or audio tones followed by a no more than two-minute spoken warning. For example, during an “Amber Alert,” the classic EAS warning will only provide a short warning in text but not give a lot of information. With CAP, additional information can be sent out with a better description of the situation. It could also include a photograph of the abducted child, and the message is available to a host of other devices like roadside signs, cell phones and other displays.

Another shortcoming of the current EAS system is the only way to update a message is to send a second message. If there’s a tornado warning announced for two hours and the storm moves through faster than that, another similar EAS message must be distributed with a shorter duration to act as a rather poor “all clear” message. This adds another step to the process of getting information to the public and creates a distrust of the messages if constantly interrupted.

As reported by Broadcast Engineering previously, equipment manufacturers have been advocating stations use a two-pronged approach to emergency situations: the primary EAS information would come from the local broadcast channel and then that would be augmented with a Common Alert Protocol (CAP) alert — basically an XML wrapper that can hold different file types including audio, video and text (PDF) information. This CAP information could be displayed on cell phones and other portable devices as well as on TCP/IP-based digital signage displays throughout an area to keep vital information flowing — in most cases within minutes after power is restored.

With the new recommendation from FEMA, broadcasters will begin to use CAP messaging across a variety of platforms, including the Internet, cell phones and other IP-enabled displays, thereby reaching more people faster. The current Emergency Alert System relies largely on radio and television broadcasts.

“The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System will allow federal, state, territorial, tribal and local officials to get critical and timely information to the public that can protect communities and save lives,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. “People get their news and information from a wider variety of sources today than ever before, and it's important that emergency management officials are able to reach members of the public no matter what medium they may be using. The Common Alerting Protocol gives us the opportunity to send one message over all IPAWS alert systems at the same time.”

Under Executive Order, FEMA is responsible for establishing the protocols and standards for an integrated emergency alert system that can reach Americans over a variety of media in a timely manner. The Federal Communications Commission is the leading agency responsible for adopting and enforcing the requirements to ensure that communications service providers have the capability to receive and transmit emergency alerts to the public.

In order to assist officials in evaluating new alert and warning systems, FEMA is conducting an assessment program to ensure products adhere to the IPAWS CAP profile. A list of prescreened products that meet the profile will be published at the FEMA Responders Knowledge Base to aid federal, state, territorial, tribal and local officials in purchasing emergency alert products that comply with IPAWS CAP.

Equipment vendors can apply for these assessments online.

Three documents defining the FEMA IPAWS technical standards and requirements for CAP and its implementation are:
· OASIS CAP Standard v1.2;
· IPAWS Specification to the CAP Standard (CAP v1.2 IPAWS USA Profile v1.0); and
· CAP to EAS Implementation Guide.

Additional information and documentation on CAP technical standards can be found online.

The CAP to EAS Implementation Guide can be found on the website of the EAS-CAP Industry Group.