Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)

During an emergency, alert and warning officials need to provide the public with life-saving information quickly. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is a modernization and integration of the nation’s alert and warning infrastructure that will save time, protecting life and property.

Federal, state, territorial, tribal and local alerting authorities may choose to use IPAWS and may also integrate local systems that use Common Alerting Protocol standards with the IPAWS infrastructure. IPAWS will give public safety officials an effective way to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies using the Emergency Alert System, the Commercial Mobile Alert System, NOAA Weather Radio and other public alerting systems from a single interface.

When disasters strike, whether they are natural, accidental, or man-made, it has always been vital that alerts and warnings be reported accurately and in a timely fashion to those who may be in danger. It is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people. Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, is the solution for effective public alerts and warnings.

In June 2006, following criticism over the government’s response to the natural disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, President George W Bush signed Executive Order 13407 ordering the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a new program to integrate and modernize the nation’s existing population warning systems. These systems include the:

  • Emergency Alert System (EAS)
  • National Warning System (NAWAS)
  • Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS)
  • NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards

The new network, subsequently termed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is designed to integrate these various systems into one modern network, and also update them to take into account newer forms of communication such as cellular telephone and text messages, satellite and cable television, electronic billboards and the internet.

The Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), is an alerting network designed to disseminate emergency alerts to mobile devices such as cell phones and pagers. The Federal Communications Commission proposed and adopted the network structure, operational procedures and technical requirements in 2007 and 2008 in response to the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act passed by Congress in 2006, which allocated $106 million to fund the program. CMAS will allow federal agencies to accept and aggregate alerts from the President of the United States, the National Weather Service (NWS) and emergency operations centers, and send the alerts to participating wireless providers who will distribute the alerts to their customers with compatible devices via a new class of message similar to text messages. The government plans to issue three types of alerts through this system: alerts issued by the President, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and AMBER Alerts. The system is a collaborative effort between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), although there has been some controversy regarding the willingness of FEMA to participate.

IPAWS CMAS is operational now and all major cell carriers, as well as hundreds of smaller carriers, are participating in CMAS on a voluntary basis. For a list of participating carriers, see the current FCC Registry file. As with all new cellular services, it will take time for upgrades in infrastructure, coverage, and handset technology to allow CMAS/WEA alerts to reach all cellular customers.

Wireless carriers are currently selling mobile devices with CMAS/WEA capability included. While not all handsets now on the market are capable of receiving WEAs, some phones may be upgradeable and it is anticipated that most commercially available phones will be WEA-capable by the end of 2014. Until then, it is possible for one person to receive WEAs while another person in the same area may not. Lists of CMAS/WEA-capable handsets are available from the individual wireless carriers. The boxes of devices capable of receiving WEAs are marked with the Wireless Emergency Alert logo below:

Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable Logo

Customers of participating wireless carriers with CMAS/WEA-capable phones will not need to sign up to receive the alerts and should automatically receive WEAs in the event of an emergency, if they are located in, or travel to the affected geographic area. Wireless customers are not charged for the delivery of Wireless Emergency Alerts.