Emergency Preparedness:

Improved Planning and Coordination Necessary for Modernization and Integration of Public Alert and Warning System

GAO-09-834: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2009.

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A comprehensive system to alert the American people in times of hazard allows people to take action to save lives. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for the current Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the development of the new Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). In this requested report, GAO examined (1) the current status of EAS, (2) the progress made by FEMA in implementing an integrated alert and warning system, and (3) the challenges involved in implementing an integrated alert and warning system. GAO conducted a survey of states, reviewed FEMA and other documentation, and interviewed industry stakeholders and officials from federal agencies responsible for public alerting.

As the primary national-level public warning system, EAS is an important alert tool, but it exhibits longstanding weaknesses that limit its effectiveness. EAS allows state and local officials limited ability to produce public alerts via television and radio. Weaknesses with EAS include lack of reliability of the message distribution system; gaps in coverage; insufficient testing; and inadequate training of personnel. Further, EAS provides little capability to alert specific geographic areas. EAS does not ensure message delivery for individuals with hearing and vision disabilities, and non-English speakers. FEMA has projects under way to address some of these weaknesses with EAS. However, to date, little progress has been made and EAS remains largely unchanged since GAO's previous review, completed in March 2007. As a result, EAS does not fulfill the need for a reliable, comprehensive alert system. Initiated in 2004, FEMA's IPAWS program is intended to integrate new and existing alert capabilities, including EAS, into a comprehensive "system of systems." However, national-level alert capabilities have remained unchanged and new technologies have not been adopted. IPAWS efforts have been affected by shifting program goals, lack of continuity in planning, staff turnover, and poorly organized program information from which to make management decisions. The vision of IPAWS has changed twice over the course of the program and strategic goals and milestones are not clearly defined, as IPAWS operated without an implementation plan from early 2007 through June 2009. Consequently, as state and local governments are forging ahead with their own alert systems, IPAWS program implementation has stalled and many of the functional goals of IPAWS, such as geo-targeting of messages and dissemination through redundant pathways to multiple devices, have yet to reach operational capacity. FEMA conducted a series of pilot projects without systematically assessing outcomes or lessons learned and without substantially advancing alert and warning systems. FEMA does not periodically report on IPAWS progress, therefore, program transparency and accountability are lacking. FEMA faces coordination issues and technical challenges in developing and implementing IPAWS. Effective public warning depends on the cooperation of stakeholders, such as emergency managers and the telecommunications industry, yet many stakeholders GAO contacted knew little about IPAWS and expressed the need for better coordination with FEMA. FEMA has taken steps to improve its coordination efforts, but the scope of stakeholder involvement is limited. FEMA also faces technical challenges related to systems integration, standards development, the development of geo-targeted and multilingual alerts, and alerts for individuals with disabilities. For example, the standard intended to facilitate integration of systems is still under development and is not widely used. As a result of these coordination and technical hurdles, integration with state and local systems will likely be a significant challenge due to potential incompatibility, and FEMA does not yet have logistical plans to integrate these systems.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order that the public alert and warning system be conceived of, designed, and implemented, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator, FEMA to improve program management and align IPAWS's vision with the requirements established in the executive order, implement processes for systems development and deployment, including (1) updating IPAWS strategic goals and milestones, implementation plans, and performance measures; (2) prioritizing projects in consultation with stakeholders; and (3) creating the necessary documentation on system design and specific release schedules for IPAWS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that FEMA's IPAWS program is intended to integrate new and existing alert capabilities into a comprehensive solution for public alerts and warnings as required by an executive order. We found that strategic goals, milestones, and performance measures for the IPAWS program were not clearly defined. Furthermore, we found the vision of IPAWS had changed twice over the course of the program and that IPAWS operated without an implementation plan from early 2007 through June 2009. To improve program management and align IPAWS's vision with the requirements established in the executive order, we recommended that FEMA update IPAWS strategic goals and milestones, implementation plans, and performance measures. FEMA responded to this recommendation by issuing an IPAWS strategic plan, which provided key milestones that were most recently updated in the IPAWS Life Cycle Cost Estimate in September 2011. More recently, FEMA has published its milestones and goals for 2012 on its website, as of June 2012. In September 2011 and January 2012, FEMA also issued official program documents describing key performance parameters that FEMA considers essential for successful mission accomplishment. Taken together, these documents more clearly define FEMA's vision, mission, strategic goals, and performance measures for IPAWS and help to ensure that the functional goals of IPAWS, such as dissemination of emergency alerts through redundant pathways to multiple devices, will reach operational capacity.

    Recommendation: In order that the public alert and warning system be conceived of, designed, and implemented, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator, FEMA to improve program transparency and accountability, report periodically to the the Congress and the Secretary of Homeland Security on progress toward achieving an integrated public alert and warning system. The report should include information on ongoing IPAWS projects, financial information on program expenditures, and status updates in achieving performance measures and reaching milestones.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we found that FEMA did not periodically report on the progress of IPAWS implementation, even though periodic reporting on a program can help to increase program transparency, establish greater program accountability, and assure a reasonable assessment of return on financial investments. Without periodic reporting, program transparency and accountability were lacking and FEMA's private sector partners and those in government at the federal, state, and local level did not readily have information necessary to help establish IPAWS. We recommended that FEMA report periodically to the Congress and the Secretary of Homeland Security on progress toward achieving IPAWS and noted that the report should include information on ongoing IPAWS projects, financial information on program expenditures, and status updates in achieving performance measures and reaching milestones. In response to our recommendation, from 2009 to 2012, FEMA periodically reported on IPAWS progress to congressional committees and subcommittees and the Department of Homeland Security. These reports included information on ongoing IPAWS projects, financial information, and status updates. As a result, FEMA improved program transparency and accountability, and provided government and private sector stakeholders with information necessary to help establish IPAWS.

    Recommendation: In order that the public alert and warning system be conceived of, designed, and implemented, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator, FEMA to help ensure system dependability, as IPAWS is developed and deployed, establish and implement a plan to verify (1) the dependability and effectiveness of systems used to disseminate alerts, and (2) that IPAWS participants have the training and technical skills to make use of IPAWS infrastructure and to issue effective public alerts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that as IPAWS is developed and deployed, it is important that IPAWS participants are adequately trained. We noted that this was especially important given that a longstanding weakness of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the only operational component of IPAWS in 2009, was inadequate training. A lack of training raised questions about whether the system would work as intended during a national emergency. We recommend that FEMA ensure that IPAWS participants have the training and technical skills to make use of IPAWS infrastructure and to issue effective public alerts. In response, FEMA contracted with a company to develop training courses on IPAWS, as outlined in FEMA's Training Management Plan, dated February 2012. For example, there is a 2-hour training course on IPAWS, available on FEMA's Emergency Management Institute website as of May 2012, required for all emergency managers and authorized alerting officials who will use IPAWS. In addition, FEMA created an EAS Best Practices Guide prior to the nationwide EAS test conducted in November 2011. The training courses and materials will help to ensure that IPAWS participants are adequately trained, increasing the likelihood that the system will work as intended during a national emergency.

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