August 31, 2009

APL, Homeland Security developing next public alert system

Engineers in APL’s Infocentric Operations Business Area are helping the Department of Homeland Security create a national next-generation emergency alert system that will work across multiple platforms, including television, cell phones and the Web.

The current Emergency Alert System was created in the 1950s to warn Americans of nuclear attacks. The technology used to alert the public today—television, radio, newspapers and, more recently, the Internet—is still pretty much “last century.” For imminent emergencies, the method is even more outdated: Remember that “beep, beep, beep” broadcast on television and radio stations?

Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks underscored the vulnerability of America’s emergency response system. In particular, Katrina severely tested the reliability of the communications infrastructure in the Gulf Coast region, crippling television broadcasts, cable TV and phone service and even the generally resilient public safety networks.

Media consumption patterns have changed, notes APL’s Tammy Parsons, the project manager for the alert-system work. “As connected mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs become ever-present, and as the lessons of recent disasters take root, the government is rethinking the shape of the emergency alert system, and APL is playing an integral role in that effort,” she said.

Under a 2006 executive order signed by then President George W. Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began developing the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.

“IPAWS is a major systems engineering challenge, as multiple systems—some existing and some still being defined—must be integrated to meet the needs of the president and all levels of government emergency managers,” said APL’s Wayne Buhrman, who did significant up-front work analyzing both the current system and commercially available options.

IPAWS consists of several components, including the next generation of the Emergency Alert System, providing voice, video and data messages in a standard digital format over Web-based networks; a 24-hour private telephone system at 2,200 sites across the country used to convey warnings to federal, state and local governments; and the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS, a mobile device alerting system created by the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act of 2006.

Working with Homeland Security’s Directorate for Science and Technology and FEMA, APL is developing requirements and analyzing potential solutions for systems that will round out the IPAWS capabilities. Eventually, the president, as well as state, local and tribal emergency managers, will be able to address the public over multiple media: radio, cable television, pagers, cell phones, the Internet and as many other outlets as feasible.

“Our current system relies largely on radio and television, but on average Americans only spend 12 percent of their day listening to the radio and 31 percent watching television,” Parsons said. “But 84 percent of Americans have cell phones.” CMAS, she added, will enable mobile service providers to voluntarily transmit alert and warning information to their subscribers.

APL is also working with the joint task force of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions and Telecommunications Industry Association to define the requirements for the interface between the FEMA-administered CMAS entities and the equipment from mobile service providers. “The mutual agreement on interface requirements by the government and wireless industry is paramount to the systems’ success and has been largely successful to date,” said Gina Marshall-Johnson, who is working on a team developing security requirements for CMAS.

Denis Gusty, the program manager for emergency alerts in the DHS Science and Technology Command, Control and Interoperability Division, said, “The work that we are doing with APL and FEMA is critical to the future of emergency alerting. [These evolving systems] are integral components in improving the capabilities of emergency alerting systems and ultimately keeping our nation safe.”

This article appeared previously in APL News.