GAO Recommends FEMA Prioritize Pending IPAWS Applications, Monitor System Progress
Friday, February 07, 2020 | Comments

In a report on the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made three recommendations, including that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) create a process for prioritizing pending IPAWS applications.

IPAWS is system launched in 2012 that allows authorized federal, state, territorial, tribal and local alerting authorities to send a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) to mobile devices, such as cellphones, and an Emergency Alert System (EAS) alert to media platforms, such as radio and television. FEMA operates IPAWS and the FCC establishes rules for telecommunications providers to deliver WEA and EAS alerts.

A public-safety agency must submit an application and receive approval from FEMA in order to become an IPAWS alerting authority. In September 2019, more than 1,400 alerting authorities had access to IPAWS, up from fewer than 100 authorities in 2013. All states have at least one alerting authority, but gaps in local authority access remain and could limit the timeliness of alerts as emergencies occur at the local level.

GAO found 430 pending IPAWS applications as of September 2019, some of which dated back to 2012. FEMA has not established procedures to prioritize and follow up with applicants and FEMA officials acknowledged that doing so would be beneficial.

The GAO also recommended that the FCC develop goals and performance measures to monitor the improvements to the WEA and that the director of the IPAWS program should document how it plans to address key actions needed to educate alerting authorities in their use of IPAWS and implement a mechanism that will allow FEMA to regularly and systematically obtain and analyze feedback on alerting authorities education needs.

FEMA and the FCC have taken steps to modernize IPAWS and improve alerting. For example, FEMA has made system upgrades and the FCC has made various WEA improvements, such as requiring wireless phone carriers to provide more precise geographic targeting of alerts.

Prior to these improvements, officials from many alerting authorities said the inability to geographically target alerts with accuracy made the officials reluctant to send WEA messages. The FCC intends to partner with certain localities to test geographic targeting, and, according to FCC officials, plans to use other tests to learn about how the improvements perform during emergencies.

However, the FCC has not developed goals and performance measures for these efforts. Doing so would help it more clearly assess whether the WEA improvements are working as intended. Furthermore, having specific performance information could increase alerting authorities’ confidence in and use of IPAWS.

FEMA concurred with the GAO’s recommendations, and the FCC said it was taking steps to gather data to inform the development of metrics as GAP recommended.

Find the full report and more information here.

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