September 28, 2015 - 1:23 pm
By Rear Admiral (Ret.) David Simpson | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

As we come to the end of September, National Preparedness Month, I'd like to highlight two tools that Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) – America's 911 operations centers – can use: one to alert their communities, and the other to alert the FCC to local public safety communications issues. These tools – emergency alerts and the FCC's new Public Safety Support Center – can help public safety communicators carry out their lifesaving missions.

Emergency Alerts

As part of National Preparedness Month, Ready.gov educates Americans to make an emergency communications plan, which includes learning how to receive emergency alerts and warnings from local officials. But are local officials ready to fully leverage alerting systems to warn their communities? One emerging best practice is for PSAPs, who field incoming emergency calls, to also have a means of sending out critical information to the public.

Here's an example of how alerting can support incident response: Last year, an anonymous 911 caller reported an active gunman in an elementary school in Seminole County, Florida. Officials placed the school on lockdown as police responded. It turned out that the call was a hoax. Before the hoax was exposed, however, news of the supposed shooter was distributed via social media, and concerned parents converged on the school. Public safety officials did not have a tool to counteract incomplete or inaccurate information on social media. Regardless whether the shooter had proven real, the cordon of armed police combined with the influx of parents complicated the situation, and an even more dangerous incident could have resulted. But imagine, on the other hand, if the police and other emergency managers could have used targeted alerting to inform parents that all was okay – or, in a different scenario, sent them instructions about where they could safely gather?

We used this incident as one of the case studies in a recent workshop we held on how local emergency officials can leverage the use of alerting systems. Panelists supported the proposition that state and local emergency management offices that fully integrate alerting, 911, social media, and other emergency communications functions into an integrated whole are far more effective in notifying their communities about danger than those that silo these functions or do not use alerting at all.

There is an effective tool already available that local public safety officials can use for alerting. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is an integrated gateway through which authorized public safety entities, including PSAPs, can initiate alerts. The alerts may be sent through the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which delivers the information via radio, television, and other media, and/or Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which are delivered to consumers’ cell phones. Most PSAPs across the country are not taking advantage of this important information dissemination resource. I encourage state, local, and tribal emergency managers to consider supporting direct participation in IPAWS from their PSAPs. It is not difficult to obtain authorization, and some PSAPs have already done so.

Public Safety Support Center

The second important tool is a new one created to specifically accelerate issue spotting with the 911 system itself. To ensure that PSAPs and other public safety organizations have an efficient way to request support and information from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, we have launched the Public Safety Support Center (PSSC). This one-stop web portal can be used by public safety stakeholders to notify us of communications issues ranging from 911 service outages and fraudulent 911 calls to tower lighting outages and interference affecting public safety radio systems. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for public safety organizations to reach us online to convey concerns with communications issues. (Of course – as always – our 24/7 Operations Center remains available by phone at all times for safety-of-life issues.) Additional details about the PSSC are included in a Public Notice  issued today.

I hope that PSAPs and other public safety stakeholders will consider using these resources and provide us with feedback as we continue to work together to improve community emergency response.