Denham holds hearing on FEMA's public alert and warning system

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, held a hearing today to examine the development of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

Currently, the United States issues emergency warnings through the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which relays messages through broadcast and other media. EAS allows the President and authorized officials to transmit emergency messages to the public via television and radio. The current system is largely based on 1960s technology and is only able to transmit limited text and audio alerts.

“At the end of the day, we all share a mutual goal – the safety of the public. That is why we introduced legislation to modernize the technology used to alert the public of National Emergencies,” Denham said in a news release.

“Today, we have the Emergency Alert System (EAS); however, the backbone of that system is still largely based on 1960s technology. Last month, after almost 50 years, FEMA conducted the first ever nation-wide test of EAS,” said Chairman Denham. “With the technological capabilities we have today, the public should be able to be alerted quickly to an impending disaster.”

“Last week we saw how important an effective alert system is to saving lives,” Denham continued. “At Virginia Tech, the University's emergency alert system kept students in place and out of harm's way in the moments following the tragic shooting. As also demonstrated this year, with devastating tornados, hurricanes and floods around our Nation, improving our alerting capability will help save even more lives.”

On Sept. 13, Denham and Ranking Member Norton introduced H.R.2904, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2011, which would establish a clear framework and timetable for FEMA’s modernization of its public alerts and warning system. The framework for modernization of the system created in H.R. 2904 would develop a system that would provide for the use of as many methods of communication as possible, including wireless technologies in sending alerts. IPAWS aims to improve public safety through the rapid dissemination of emergency messages to as many people as possible over as many communication devices as possible, including multiple languages, in American Sign Language, and in Braille.

The legislation is modeled after the WARN Act that effectively provided a framework, led by the FCC, for the development of the Commercial Mobile Telephone Alerts (CMAS) – the wireless component of IPAWS.

“CMAS, when fully deployed as part of IPAWS, will transmit text alerts to wireless devices. While adding wireless devices is a great first step, ultimately sending more than simple text is what is envisioned with IPAWS,” continued Chairman Denham.

Congressman Denham and Ranking Member Norton recently sent a letter requesting GAO review the current status of the development of IPAWS. Expressing the need to ensure we have a reliable system that will send a warning out to as many people as possible.