State of Colorado: Governor John Hickenlooper

FEMA to oversee mobile-phone alert system

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will oversee the national mobile-phone alert system, the announcement coming after the agency earlier this year hesitated about taking on the role because of legal uncertainty. In doing so, FEMA touched off a minor controversy with the Federal Communications Commission.


"FEMA supports the framework developed by the Federal Communications Commission for delivering cellular alerts and we have determined that we have both the necessary authorities and technical solutions to assume the responsibility as the federal cellular alert aggregator," said Martha Rainville, FEMA's assistant director of the National Continuity Programs Directorate. "We will work with DHS science and technology scientists to finalize the technical solutions and with the Federal Communications Commission as we make the alert aggregator operational."


18 months to implement


Rainville said FEMA, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, will announce a common alerting protocol in the next 30-to-60 days. She added that all the pieces should be in place to make the mobile-phone warning system operational in 12-to-18 months. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System being developed by FEMA will be a digital platform for supporting emergency alert distribution by cellular carriers and other communications service providers.


Rainville told reporters a closer review -- based in part on the technical solutions under development -- indicated FEMA indeed has the statutory powers to be the federal aggregator/gateway for a mobile alert system that would supplement -- and vastly improve -- a Cold War-era public warning regime that's still largely broadcast-based. President Bush signed an executive order two years ago putting DHS in charge of modernizing the emergency alert system in the United States.


In mid-February, less than two months before the FCC adopted technical rules for the commercial mobile alert system, Rainville told the commission that FEMA believed it lacked statutory authority during non-emergency periods to be involved with critical components of the commercial mobile alert system, including aggregator and gateway functions as well as the trust model, when warnings are issued by non-federal agencies.


Further inspection of rules


What changed between then and now insofar as FEMA's interpretation of law governing emergency warnings and the agency's role in particular?


"We have used the time ... to really review the authorities that are existing to see if any new authorities were needed, to review authorities to make sure we could work in the role that would be required of an aggregator [working with state and local officials] in a non-emergency situation," Rainville said. "Our role is very clear in an emergency, but it wasn't quite so clear otherwise. We were also able to look forward a little on the technical solutions to get a comfort level that we could work out the technical solutions that would allow us to work with states and locals appropriately under the authorities we have and that would also allow us to do this without creating any delays in the messaging."


As such, Rainville said FEMA does not need additional legislation to carry out new duties. The agency may have to request additional funding from Congress, however.


The FCC must establish a process for wireless carriers to elect whether to transmit emergency alerts to subscribers by Aug. 9. Mobile-phone carriers in turn will have to inform the FCC in early September whether they plan to participate in the program. While the 2006 Warning Alert and Response Network Act makes the wireless emergency warning program voluntary, major cellphone operators initially signaled they will be involved.


Rainville said system development and finding solutions to technical issues will be required in order to make the system work, including crafting technical specifications that will enable emergency alerts to override and pre-empt non-emergency traffic.


FEMA stressed it will interface, but not interfere with, existing state and local alerting systems. Moreover, the agency said states will be responsible for determining and identifying people who have the authority to send alerts for their specific jurisdictions. The federal aggregator system will be engineered with DHS science and technology scientists. Rainville said FEMA also will be working with other government agencies as well as with local, state and tribal officials on a project she described as complex and time-consuming.


Meantime, industry bodies -- the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions and the Telecommunications Industry Association -- are working on alert technical standards for wireless carriers.