Coordination is Key with Wireless Emergency Alerts
September is National Preparedness Month, and according to FEMA, the goal of National Preparedness Month is to increase the number of individuals, families, and communities who prepare for emergencies at home, work, businesses, schools, and places of worship. This year's theme is:
Disasters Don't Plan Ahead, You Can. Don't Wait. Communicate.
Communication is a critical function during any emergency. This is especially true when significant incidents threaten entire communities or large geographic areas. Coordination of communication is a lesser understood function during an emergency of regional, state or national significance.
FEMA issues warning messages at the local, regional, state and national level directly to customers of most of major cell phone carriers– including AT&T, Cellcom, Nextel, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular – through the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Customers are signed up automatically and not charged for this service. Messages automatically appear on customers' phone displays whether or not the text message feature is open and can include extreme weather warnings, alerts issued by the president, AMBER alerts, or looming threats to life and safety.
Wireless Emergency Alerts, another type of warning message, are free and have some text-like features. WEA are differentiated by a unique sound and vibration so that all consumers, including those with disabilities, can recognize and respond to warnings about a threatening situation. In 90 characters or less, a WEA states the following:
Like text message warnings issued by cell carriers, consumers do not need to sign up for WEA. WEA allow government officials to send emergency alerts to all subscribers with WEA-capable devices if their wireless carrier participates in the program. Participating wireless carriers may offer subscribers the ability to block alerts such as those involving imminent threats to safety of life or AMBER Alerts, but consumers cannot block emergency alerts issued by the president.
However, more communication is not always better, especially if it is inconsistent or not coordinated with local or regional response operations. For example, a message to evacuate an area could be at odds with the local jurisdiction's emergency evacuation procedures. Because WEA messages are geographically broadcast from cell phone towers, it is possible that customers at a safe distance from the threat might act on a WEA warning, unnecessarily clogging highways and diverting resources.
The emergency management community's best plan of action is to work closely with local, regional, state and national authorities to understand communications systems thoroughly before the incident occurs. This reduces the likelihood of surprise and confusion. Establish relationships with colleagues and other points of contact to be available in anticipation of a major incident. Review existing communication and evacuation plans, updating them if necessary. Coordinate with local and regional individuals and groups who are likely to be involved in such operations. Ultimately, take FEMA's advice: Don't wait, communicate.
For more information, contact your TDEM district coordinator or visit the FEMA website.
Bill Wahlgren, MSC
Publications Management Unit Supervisor, Preparedness