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August 28, 2009

APL Helping U.S. Homeland Security Department Develop Next-Generation Public Alert System

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

IO Public Alert Team.jpgThe current Emergency Alert System (EAS) 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 For imminent emergencies, the method is even more outdated: remember that “beep, beep, beep” broadcast on television and radio stations?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 9/11 terrorist attacks underscored the vulnerability of America’s emergency response infrastructure. 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 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 says.

Under a 2006 executive order signed by then-President George W. Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began developing the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (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,” says APL’s Wayne Buhrman, who did significant up-front work analyzing the current system, as well as commercially available systems.

IPAWS consists of several systems, including the next generation of the EAS, 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 (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 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 practicable.

According to Parsons, “our current system relies largely on radio and television, but on average, Americans only spend 12% of their day listening to the radio and 31% watching television. But 84% of Americans have cell phones.” CMAS, she adds, 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,” says Gina Marshall-Johnson, who is working on a team developing security requirements for CMAS.

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