We recently had the opportunity to interview Mike Gerber of the National Weather Service (NWS) about the NWS’s plans for the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS), also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). As you may know, CMAS/WEA enables alert originators to send geographically targeted alert messages to mobile devices across the country, currently to a space as small as a county. Though local and state emergency management offices are able to originate alerts (and have been signing up with FEMA to do so), many expect the NWS to originate the vast majority of all CMAS messages sent, due to its role in alerts and warnings around weather events.

More information on the NWS’s plans for CMAS/WEA is available in this season’s edition of the NWS newsletter Aware (no relation to this blog AWARE). According to that most recent issue, the NWS will issue CMAS/WEA alerts for initial issuance of the following warning types:

  • Tsunami Warnings
  • Tornado Warnings
  • Flash Flood Warnings
  • Extreme Wind Warnings
  • Hurricane and Typhoon Warnings
  • Blizzard Warnings
  • Ice Storm Warnings
  • Dust Storm Warnings

1. What is your timeframe to implement CMAS in your community/agency?

We plan to begin pushing CAP v1.2 to FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) in May.  This means wireless carriers will be able to pick up NWS alerts from IPAWS and distribute them to millions of cell phones over CMAS/WEA in time for summer and the upcoming tropical weather season.

2. How do you plan to integrate CMAS with your current alerting systems?

People must recognize that CMAS/WEA is merely one tool in our nation’s larger warning network.  CMAS/WEA messages are based on the same warnings that are already being issued by the NWS and distributed through other alerting systems.  The difference is that CMAS/WEA, in its current form, is a 90 character text-like message intended to act as a bell ringer or notification of a significant threat in the recipient’s area.  When the recipient receives the message, they should take the action prescribed in the message and seek further information via their mobile device, NOAA Weather Radio, web, television, radio, and other electronic media sources.

3. What are the advantages of CMAS for your agency?

The NWS mission is all about protection of life and property.  CMAS/WEA is another way to get critical NWS information to the people who need it when they need it, so that we can best save lives and protect property.  Social scientists continue to tell us that people don’t take decisive life-saving action until they hear an alert from a trusted source and often times they’ll want to hear it from multiple sources before taking action.  We expect CMAS/WEA to not only help further our mission, but more importantly, to be a life-saving tool for the general public.  CMAS/WEA has the potential to be a major contributor in the arsenal of public alerting systems.

4. What would make CMAS more effective for your agency?

Proximity-based alerting would be ideal.  Currently, there is a limitation with CMAS/WEA in regard to its geo-targeting of the recipient that may result in over-warning.  Wireless carriers are only required to alert their customer down to the county level.  However, for short-fused events such as tornadoes, the NWS defines the warning area in the form of a polygon which is usually smaller than the size of a county.  The first step in making CMAS more effective would be for wireless carriers to target their customers more precisely by warning down to the polygon level.  The ideal state would be for CMAS to become a service that broadcasts weather and other hazard location information to the recipient’s mobile device, whereby the  device  determines if the recipient is in the path of the hazard and warns accordingly.

5. How are you coordinating with other alerting agencies (state/local/tribal/territorial/federal)?

All CMAS/WEA participants and stakeholders need to ensure that community decision makers and the general public know about CMAS/WEA and the intent of a CMAS/WEA message, so that the people respond appropriately to the messages.  Since last year, we have been informing the emergency management community about CMAS/WEA in the NWS Aware Report, a quarterly newsletter to nearly 2,000 members of the emergency management community.  The NWS has also drafted a one page FAQ sheet that covers the most important points about CMAS/WEA from a user’s perspective.  By May, we plan to distribute the one-pager to local media and emergency managers through our Warning Coordination Meteorologists (WCMs) and Service Coordination Hydrologists (SCHs) who are located at over 120 local NWS offices around the country.   Our WCMs and SCHs have outstanding working relationships with local media and emergency managers.

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