WASHINGTON Supporters of a common alerting protocol for disseminating emergency alerts say the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to eventually adopt the format for exchanging emergency messages is welcome but that the timetable it has spelled out raises questions about equipment readiness and the agency’s handling of the process.
Meanwhile, some supporters wonder if the outcome of the November elections might derail FEMA’s implementation for next-gen EAS depending on who wins the White House, because of possible leadership changes within the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.
As part of an announcement of intent in July to integrate Common Alerting Protocol 1.1 as the standard for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, FEMA reiterated that all participants in the next generation of the Emergency Alert System would need to be in compliance with CAP 1.1 within 180 days of CAP’s adoption.
That adoption — which hasn’t happened yet but is expected during the first quarter of 2009 — has some observers concerned about potential EAS equipment shortages.
With CAP, warning messages can be disseminated simultaneously over interoperable warning systems developed by state and local emergency managers. In addition to audio, multimedia such as video, digital photos and text could be used. Some states use CAP for emergency warning now.
Some within the emergency management arena, while pleased with FEMA’s decision, question whether manufacturers of equipment will be able to withstand a crushing demand for new decoder boxes and meet the 180 day compliance mandate if every EAS participant is indeed required to have a CAP-capable decoder.
FEMA says that arriving at standards and protocols that work for everyone is a complex process that includes partners across government and the private sector.
“We are working closely with others to develop a profile that is in line with CAP 1.1,” said Martha Rainville, assistant administrator of FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate.
A CAP Advisory Council — consisting of representatives from the National Association of Broadcasters, the Society of Broadcast Engineers, equipment manufacturers and others — formed this summer. It has begun work to help FEMA through the CAP adoption process.
The group’s Manufacturing Working Group is expected to finish its work soon, defining how CAP should be implemented with EAS, according to a person familiar with the council. FEMA could use the group’s work as the basis for a so-called “OASIS” standard; the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards is a not-for-profit consortium that works to advance standards for the global information society.
In fact, the Manufacturing Working Group held a conference call with FEMA this summer specifying a workable set of guidelines for ensuring backward compatibility with the current EAS Specific Area Message Encoder protocol.
The 180-day deadline for broadcasters and emergency managers to become CAP-compliant raises concern for some EAS equipment manufacturers about the availability of equipment capable of receiving CAP 1.1 messages, said Darryl Parker, senior vice president of TFT Inc.
“Right now we are under the gun to have enough equipment available by the third quarter of 2009. You must consider the magnitude of the situation,” Parker said.
There are about 35,000 EAS participants who may be required to have CAP-to-EAS decoders, Parker said. What’s not clear is whether all 35,000 will be required to have a new decoder; FEMA has not addressed the issue definitively.
“There are only five to six companies capable of producing this equipment. That means each manufacturer might have to produce 6,000 to 7,000 units within six months,” Parker said.
Equipment manufacturers have been reluctant to ramp up production of new units until FEMA releases its CAP 1.1 specs and completes the formal adoption process early next year.
“It complicates matters that FEMA has yet to disclose exactly what we will need to build to meet requirements,” he said.
Further, Parker said, FEMA could set specifications during the spring of 2009, but not necessarily publish a procedure for ensuring a unit complies with specs at the same time.
“I don’t believe we would market a unit that had not passed a conformance review,” Parker added.
Several equipment manufacturers already offer CAP-capable equipment for sale, including TFT Inc. and Sage Alerting Systems.
The exact wording of FEMA’s July announcement has Art Botterell, one of the architects of CAP 1.1, skeptical about the government agency’s intent.
FEMA said in its press release it would “adopt during the first quarter of calendar year 2009, an alerting protocol in line with Common Alerting Protocol 1.1” as the standard for the Integrated Public alert and Warning Systems.
“Specifically, the phrase ‘in line with CAP 1.1’ has no particular meaning. Still to be seen is if FEMA’s staff or its contractors will put their own spin on the standard at the expense of interoperability with other services,” said Botterell, manager of a community warning system for the Sheriff’s Department of Contra Costa County in California.
Others who have examined FEMA’s announcement say its wording regarding CAP 1.1 is “ambiguous” and makes it difficult to draw many conclusions.
“There is some gray area in the announcement,” said a person familiar with FEMA’s handling of the situation. “I do believe FEMA is committed to making an announcement about their specifications for CAP 1.1 during the first quarter of 2009. We are just not sure what those specifications will be.”
Botterell also speculates that any decisions made by FEMA could be “up for grabs” again when a new administration takes over in Washington, with possible leadership changes at the DHS and FEMA at the beginning of the year.
FEMA’s July announcement did not address the issue of the funding and training that likely will be needed for emergency mangers to originate CAP messages for next-gen EAS properly.