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Responder News: Wireless Emergency Alerts Guided by Lessons Learned

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Responder News: Wireless Emergency Alerts Guided by Lessons Learned

Release Date: 
October 29, 2015
The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) hopes to raise awareness for the public and first responders alike on the benefits of WEA messaging during emergency situations.

cell phone displaying wireless emergency alertThe Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) service is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), providing an additional dissemination path for alert and warning messages. Authorized officials can send 90-character alerts to the public on WEA capable mobile devices. Alerts are geographically targeted and sent via cell broadcast, in which a single alert is sent to cell towers and delivered to multiple mobile devices.

Denis Gusty, Program Manager in DHS S&T’s First Responders Group, Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, explained how the alert and warnings serve the public and how they are a vital part of keeping people safe and informed, “The first thing you’re going to hear is a tone, which is a message signal that identifies the WEA alert, and sounds like the Emergency Alert System tone that’s been around for years.”

Gusty continued, “Second, even though WEA is part of a national system, the messages are geo-targeted, meaning that they are localized to the area or the vicinity that the people are in. Authorized local alert originators, such as Emergency Managers, can define the area that the message is intended for. If you receive a WEA on your phone, then chances are you are in or near the area of impending disaster.”

Research areas include improving the geo-targeting capabilities of mobile alerts, warnings, and understanding and improving the public’s response to the WEAs. Three recently published studies on the WEA system have found that the role of social media should not be neglected. WEA messages have played a growing role during emergency situations and have been passed on between friends on various social media platforms.

S&T released a RAND Corporation report in July 2015 that examined four distinct emergency scenarios on how data used in facilitating the composition of the WEA messages could provide enough information on the different types of emergency situations for the study’s simulations. These scenarios included flash floods, tornados, hazmat plumes and major floods. RAND’s research explored the capability gaps and how the system might offer new options for various types of emergency scenarios.

RAND’s findings recommended that WEA can indeed be used to accurately send precise geo-targeted alerts to the public in large imminent threat areas (e.g., earthquakes), as well as very small areas (e.g., tsunami warnings).

The two other studies conducted have offered insight into how WEA might have an impact on its target audience.

The University of Maryland, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) released a report last August that investigated the effect that message format, word order and choice have on recipient response to the message.

The START team determined that expanding to 280-character messages (compare with the current 90 character limit) did not contain enough crucial information to overcome the recipient’s pre-alert and warning event perceptions. If alert originators were to expand their messages, it would be vital to contain information regarding the potential hazard (what happened), direction (what to do about it) and a clear timeline (when to do it).

The START findings also suggested that adding further options such as apps and hyperlinks could be helpful. Also, the study found that increasing the number of characters in the message reduces the reliance on maps.

The MITRE Corporation analyzed how social media platforms are used in response to or to further share WEA messages, and how public sentiment is expressed across social media platforms. MITRE’s report offered two recommendations on how negative public sentiment could be addressed: first, Alert Originators could improve user understanding through education programs; and second, initiating engagement through social media may clarify information contained in the incoming WEA message. WEA is not widely understood by the general public, as evidenced by confusion surrounding how the public responds when they receive certain alerts.

WEA messages have become an important starting point for online discussions on approaching severe weather and disasters. First responder call centers have had to adjust and adapt quickly to the growing use of social media during emergency situations. One such instance is the use of WEA messaging in New York City during Hurricane Sandy.

Other resources for understanding WEA and its implementation strategies are available. In 2013, S&T released a Lessons Learned report on WEA. Also, the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University compiled a series of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) best practices for Alert Originators.

To learn more about the Wireless Emergency Alerts and the reports, contact first.responder@hq.dhs.gov.

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