The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is a powerful federal resource that can be used by state, local, tribal, and territorial authorities to protect the public. As with any powerful tool, IPAWS is a multiplier when used properly. However, we all have heard stories concerning improper use of IPAWS that resulted in embarrassment for public safety officials and unease within the community. Fortunately, there are a few easy steps you can take to keep this from happening to your agency.
Understand your environment
It will be vital for alerting agencies to understand the public alerting environment they serve. Some questions to ask include the following:
- What risks and threats does the community face?
- Who is the population of the community?
- Is the population multilingual?
- Does it skew younger or older?
- Are there special populations—e.g., hospitals, nursing homes, schools—to be considered?
- What systems are available to reach these audiences?
This collective understanding will enable the alerting authority to craft its messages, and select the distribution media for those messages, to ensure that they not only reach the appropriate audiences, but also resonate with them. Using IPAWS effectively requires alerting agencies to anticipate the scenarios that will trigger an alert, and to know in advance what message and medium will be best for each potential emergency event. That requires planning, and a lot of it.
Document plans, policies, and procedures
In public safety, people typically fall back on what they do regularly in stressful or high-risk situations. Consequently, public safety agencies need to integrate IPAWS and other tools into their regular routines. The process starts with plans, policies, and procedures. Some of the key questions that need to be answered during IPAWS planning include:
- Who can request an alert?
- Who can authorize an alert?
- Who will send the alert?
- Who needs to be notified when an alert is sent?
- What procedures can prevent invalid alerts?
Using IPAWS effectively depends on a well-crafted plan that identifies procedures for using the system, policies that govern those procedures, and training and exercises to ensure that those procedures are well-executed when a crisis occurs. A crisis is not the time to be thinking about how to use IPAWS.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Effective exercise programs can increase confidence in the system, increase user familiarity, and be used to refine policies and procedures. IPAWS is no different. Using the various systems during exercises and preplanned events when appropriate will improve the effectiveness of these systems. MCP has supported testing in the IPAWS lab environment, as well as live exercises and live imminent threat alerts.
Another key aspect to exercising these systems is to include information on them in the agency’s regular public education programs. This is very effective with special populations such as children, non-English speakers, and the deaf and hearing-impaired communities.
MCP has extensive experience with all public-alerting mechanisms, including IPAWS. MCP has provided how-to guides, equipment specifications, procurement support, and group workshops and presentations, as well as one-on-one consulting for high-risk communities.
As part of our support of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP)—a partnership between FEMA, the U.S. Army, and the states of Colorado and Kentucky—MCP subject-matter experts are working with counties in both states to ensure that they can utilize IPAWS effectively. CSEPP provides emergency preparedness support to communities where Army chemical weapon stockpiles exist. While the stockpiles are being destroyed, the surrounding communities must be prepared if something goes awry—and that means, in large measure, having a robust alerting mechanism.
As it relates to public safety and emergency management, things tend to go awry, quite often as a matter of fact. When they do, IPAWS is a great tool to have in the emergency management toolbox. As it relates to emergency alerts, IPAWS greatly enhances an alerting authority’s ability to get the right message, at the right time, into the hands of the right audience.
Becoming an authorized IPAWS user makes sense and is easy. Please let us know how we can help your agency become one. Learn more about how IPAWS can work as part of your alert and notification plan and emergency exercise program, join us for our July webinar, "Integrating IPAWS Into Your Public Alert & Notification Plan," on Wednesday, July 25. Space is limited. Register today.