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  1. Science and Technology Directorate
  2. News Room
  3. Feature Article: Breakthrough Alert Messaging for a Mobile Public

Feature Article: Breakthrough Alert Messaging for a Mobile Public

Release Date: February 16, 2023

The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) refers to the rapidly growing areas of land that lie between the urban sprawl of cities and towns, and the undeveloped more rural and forested countryside and mountains. It is in the WUI that the danger and damage from the growing risk of wildfires is most prevalent. Of paramount importance is alerting people in the path of fires and enabling their safe evacuation from the area. That’s why the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is leading the charge to help provide innovative communication solutions that are pushed directly to the public.  

A red fire engine and in the background, a wildfire burns through trees. Smoke is filling the skies.
Fighting fires and protecting the public in the wildland urban interface is very different than it is in urban areas. (Photo Credit: Elements Envato)

With this in mind, S&T partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Corner Alliance, and other industry collaborators to develop the WUI Integration Model.

It functions as an enhancement to existing emergency alerting capabilities by sending critical information to the public over a new medium—the infotainment consoles in their vehicles. However, the plan for this innovative approach didn’t stop there. The concept also included forging a new pathway to send specific geolocation information regarding wildfires to the vehicle’s street mapping application. That way, the drivers could see on their console maps where they are in relation to a wildfire. With that knowledge, they could then take steps to avoid it or exit the area.

Eventually, the plan is to integrate those capabilities with real-time routing instructions that can also be sent to the vehicle’s navigational mapping system. Then, just like being guided to the best detour to get around a traffic accident, drivers will be able to follow the directions to safely evacuate away from a wildfire impact zone.

At night, several firefighters are on a ridge battling an enormous blaze.
Fires in the wildland urban interface can be massive. Responders face challenges in getting equipment, personnel, and water to where it is needed most, in addition to making sure people are evacuated safely. (Photo Credit: iStock)

Once the WUI Integration Model was stood up, the team collaborated with Fairfax County Virginia’s Office of Emergency Management (Fairfax OEM). In August 2022, they held a live demonstration to test the potentially game-changing technology in a real-world scenario.

According to S&T Program Manager Norman Speicher, “Wildfires, flooding, and earthquakes are all examples of emergencies that can be very dangerous. Incidents of this nature require appropriate and timely action to be taken by the public, especially by those who might find themselves in harm’s way. The situation on the ground can change quickly, so people need real-time evacuation routing when necessary. To that end, the work we’re doing supports FEMA to improve communication with the public in the WUI.”

Current Communication Solutions

Having a robust emergency alerting system to aid wildfire response in the WUI is essential to S&T’s mission of securing the nation. When incident commanders, emergency managers, alerting authorities, and public safety officials need to disseminate life-saving evacuation information to the public, they need to do it quickly, and in the most effective way possible.

For more than 10 years, FEMA has used its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to send authenticated and valid emergency notifications to the public through mobile phones via Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). These alerts can inform the public about wildfires, natural or manmade incidents, law enforcement actions, severe weather, and even individuals at risk—like during Amber or Silver Alerts. Similar information is also transmitted over radio and television via the Emergency Alert System (EAS). “IPAWS enables relevant and timely delivery of emergency information to inform the public of potential threats to their safety and protective actions to take in response to that threat,” IPAWS Director Antwane Johnson said.

IPAWS and EAS have been the gold standard since deployment, but today’s responders need new and forward-thinking solutions that can account for issues in the growing WUI landscape, and elsewhere. To accomplish this, they need a unified solution that can bridge the gap between time-sensitive, life-saving information and the modern, mobile navigation-reliant public.

Tragedy in Paradise

A tragic example of the danger in the WUI is the 2018 wildfire known as the “Camp Fire.” It was the deadliest and most expensive fire in California history. Widely known as the fire that ripped through the small town of Paradise, it left devastation in its wake. For those in the path of the rapidly moving blaze, they faced chaos and confusion. Unfortunately, technology capable of delivering time-sensitive, detailed, geolocational evacuation information to the public, in their vehicles or via their mobile devices, did not yet exist.

A car is pulled off to the side of a tree-lined road in the WUI. Smoke from a wildfire hangs in the air and throughout the woods and brush.
Fires in the wildland urban interface can increase in size very quickly. Detailed evacuation instructions can help save lives. (Photo Credit: Elements Envato)

To help safeguard the future, S&T is committed to providing people with critical information so they can effectively use it to protect themselves and their loved ones. Building the next generation of WUI alert technology is vitally important because it can save lives.

Speicher explains, “As of now, you might get a WEA alert on your phone, indicating there is a wildfire in the area, and that’s great. But then it’s incumbent upon you to figure out where to go. What do you do with that alert information if you’re in your car? Do I turn here? Do I turn there? Do I turn around? What are the prevailing winds and where is the dry brush that will burn fastest? Which way is the fire headed and how do I get out of harm’s way? That’s the solution we are ultimately trying to provide in the future with the WUI Integration Model.’’

It is a multi-phase endeavor, so S&T and its partners first aimed to expand the delivery of emergency alerts beyond WEA and EAS. They needed to reach people on mobile apps and in their vehicles, and then integrate it with pre-existing mapping and navigation applications. That meant focusing on the development of new methods, and new information sources for delivering emergency warnings.  

A New Approach

The novel approach they decided upon was to use FEMA’s IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks (OPEN). It is a vendor agnostic third-party interface that supports the IPAWS emergency messaging information feed.

“Understanding that most people are relying more and more on mapping from their cell phones and from their vehicle’s infotainment console, we thought, ‘What if we can build a solution that integrates IPAWS-OPEN with digital navigation apps?’ So that’s what we did,” Speicher said.

The plan to connect IPAWS-OPEN with new technology solutions providers that can enhance the reach of the IPAWS-OPEN system, is a game-changer. For this approach to be successful, S&T is leveraging its relationship-building power to bring IPAWS, private sector solutions providers, and state and local emergency managers together to develop capabilities and establish the proper flow of data. 

This is cutting edge stuff, so to bridge the technology gap, S&T and Corner Alliance also partnered with HAAS Alert, a company S&T has worked with in the past to develop responder solutions. HAAS also has pre-existing partnerships with Stellantis (a multinational automaker) and Waze (a mapping application for mobile devices). Through those partnerships, HAAS has experience pushing data directly to infotainment consoles and mobile mapping apps. In the future, the team is looking to develop the additional mapping and navigation capabilities to provide the routing information that the public can use to avoid hazards, like wildfires.

New Alerts for Man and Machine

Representation of an infotainment console in a car that shows a navigational mapping app. The digital map on the infotainment console is showing directions to route a driver around a fire incident. The danger zone is marked with a fire symbol and the words “Wildfire Warning.” The driver’s hand is visible and might be reaching for the console.
In the future, the hope is to push life-saving public safety alerts to street mapping apps, so those at risk can be directed out of the path of danger. (Photo Credit: iStock)

This new medium of communication means that a new type of alert must be created, one that local alerting authorities will craft based on community needs and responsiveness. “Behavioral science goes into that part of the equation,” said Speicher. “They will need to create a standardized messaging format that people receiving the alert can immediately become familiar with and respond to appropriately.”

It wasn’t just that humans needed to understand the messages, either. The systems in many vehicles were not designed for these messages. Further elaborating on the complexities and importance of it, Speicher added, “The way we all get streaming digital music, GPS data, or other information to our car’s infotainment systems is currently like the ‘Wild West’. It’s not standardized. Each system is different. And what we’re doing is not about building an app for people to download. It’s about pushing critical public safety alerts into each vehicle’s preexisting ecosystem. If the car is near a potential hazard, we want to inform you, protect you, and lead you to safety.”

Time for the Demonstration

To prove the hypothesis that the technical capabilities now currently exist to integrate IPAWS-OPEN with the new navigational technologies, the team designed a proof-of-concept demonstration. For the demo, FEMA utilized its internal IPAWS test environment. Since they were operating on FEMA’s private network, when HAAS and the Fairfax OEM connected to it and initiated the simulated yet realistic looking warnings, they were not at risk of inadvertently alerting or confusing the public.

The scenario the team created for the first WUI Integration Model demo used a fictitious county wildfire as the test incident example. With Fairfax OEM serving as the alert originator, the demo was run from their emergency operations center. It involved multiple vehicles in multiple locations that received alert messages when they crossed into specific geographic zones. 

Once everything was in place and the team members drove to their pre-determined locations, it was time to begin the test. A field controller called Fairfax OEM to notify them of the fictitious fire incident. OEM then drafted the alert which was sent out from Fairfax OEM to the FEMA IPAWS test environment. From there, HAAS picked up the alert from the IPAWS-OPEN feed, processed the alert, and redistributed it to Waze, and the infotainment consoles in the Stellantis vehicles.

Speicher described the demonstration saying, “The app designated a brushfire being present in Vannoy Park, a wooded area in Fairfax County, Virginia, about 25 miles west of Washington, DC. The alert area had a one-mile radius. Each of the drivers in the test received the message over their infotainment consoles (and on their cell phones) when they entered the designated alert area. At that point, the drivers were able to see the fire zone on their maps and they could then avoid it or exit that hazardous area. This phase of the testing was a big success.”

Advanced Comms in the Wildland Urban Interface

With no such solution existing today, S&T worked with multiple partners across the public and private sectors to achieve its goal. The successful WUI Integration Model demonstration proved the hypothesis that an increasingly mobile and digitally-oriented public can be reached with potentially life-saving alerts by leveraging existing technologies like FEMA’s IPAWS and widely-used commercial digital platforms.

The demo was a great first step and “Future alerting technology developers are encouraged to adapt their technologies to promote a ubiquitous alerting ecosystem. Specifically, we’re looking for one that will advance public safety officials’ ability to extend alert and warning capabilities into underserved areas. Additionally, we want to ensure that all people, including those within the access and functional needs community, as well as non-English speakers, have equal access to emergency information,” FEMA’s Johnson adds.

While appreciating the present, Speicher also has his eyes on the future, “The test proved its value. We created a new pathway to help people get directions in real-time and assist them getting out of the way of danger. Now we need to build relationships with other infotainment providers, see what hurdles present themselves, and then overcome those challenges.”

The team is currently evaluating potential sites for another, more complex test demo in the future.

Last Updated: 10/18/2023
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