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New Mexico Tackles EAS Alerting Issues

Mike Langner on how the state encouraged “a true public-private partnership”

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mike Langner sounds like a radio programmer when he talks about the Emergency Alert System — he says it’s all about the content.

Langner, chair of the New Mexico State Emergency Communications Committee, has been campaigning for improved content quality in EAS alert messages ever since AMBER Alerts started appearing in the early 2000s.

A retired broadcast engineer and technical consultant to the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, he has found a solution to the problem with the help of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management or DHSEM. He calls the result a “true public-private partnership.”

“Like many states’ EAS systems, the delivery vehicle — the EAS system itself — has worked remarkably well for years. Our problem has been content,” he said.

“The creation of Amber Alerts years ago brought the content question with EAS alerts to the fore. Alerting agencies were issuing AMBER Alerts with missing information, erroneous information and bypassing the EAS system’s norms and protocols. As a result, the early AMBER Alerts in New Mexico were not as effective as they should have been.”

Langner said part of the problem was the lack of a “central EAS alert message entry point” for message originators.

“There wasn’t one, except for calling the State Primary station on the telephone. This meant that the State Primary station had to decide who was authorized to launch an EAS alert, set up a password system for authentication, record the caller and decide if an actual EAS alert launch was warranted by the caller’s message content.”

Mike Langner, shown at his home amateur radio station.

That placed the station in a “gatekeeper” role that could be very uncomfortable at times, he said. Security issues were also a major concern in an age of malevolent hackers and disgruntled employees of public service agencies.

So Langner began lobbying for improved content quality in EAS alert messages and for better public-serving control of who was authorized to request the launch of EAS alerts. In addition, Langner said he recognized the challenges involved as radio stations became more and more automated, which can lead to long periods when stations have no staff members in their studios.

“In New Mexico, with the wide open spaces the sparsely populated state provides, an abductor can take a child hundreds of miles in just a few hours, so speedy, complete, accurate and detailed Amber Alerts are essential. The same concern goes for all alerts. I’m talking weather alerts, winter road closings, and coming soon, an event code for Blue Alerts,” Langner said.

New Mexico Broadcasters Association President/CEO Paula Maes began the process by holding a number of meetings with law enforcement and other alerting agencies in order to determine the best path and to determine the optimal public serving plan for the future, Langner said. Steve Rooney, chair of the NMBA board of directors, was instrumental in focusing broadcaster interest and involvement across the state.

However, the biggest positive step, Langner said, was the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the New Mexico State Police becoming “gatekeeper” to both the New Mexico EAS and to the New Mexico Integrated Public Alert and Warning System in 2016.

“The state of New Mexico legislature, the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, the DHSEM and the New Mexico State Police, among others, contributed to crafting a set of guidelines for EAS usage by alerting officials, which was adopted and codified into law,” he said.

One of the driving forces of legislative efforts to improve the state’s EAS system was State Sen. Bill Burt from Alamogordo, owner/manager of a group of radio stations known for dedication to community service, Langner said.

The key to “best practices” in EAS and IPAWS alert content creation is proper education of alerting officials, Langner said. The New Mexico DHSEM tapped Wynn Brannin, DHSEM statewide emergency coordinator, to oversee creation of a coordinated, educated, public serving network of alerting officials.

Brannin was not authorized by his superiors to speak to Radio World about his efforts to improve emergency alerting in the state; but according to a class description, the New Mexico DHSEM IPAWS workshop “increases awareness of the benefits of using IPAWS for effective public warnings, skills to draft appropriate, effective and accessible warning messages and best practices in the effective use of Common Alerting Protocol to reach all members or your communities.”

Prior to the gatekeeper model adopted by New Mexico DHSEM, Langner said, each county’s emergency manager tended to jealously guard his/her territory and would accept guidance from the state level with varying degrees of interest.

“Now, in order to access the EAS and IPAWS systems, the alerting officials requesting access have to accept training and education in how to best use the system. A number of them were reluctant to participate at first, but Wynn’s persistence moved many of them to accept and then to embrace the idea that the more complete they could be educated to effectively craft EAS and IPAWS messages, the more effective they’d be as emergency managers,” Langner said.

There have been a few awkward moments, Langner said, and for a few months Brannin was the only person authorized to launch statewide EAS and IPAWS alerts. Since then other emergency managers have been trained and certified.

“If an agency calls to launch an alert, Wynn or a designated member of his staff will immediately comb the alert so that its language is clear and purposeful for the general public’s consumption,” Langner said.

Brannin also worked with New Mexico’s broadcast stations to strengthen the delivery channels with more robust and reliable dissemination sets of pathways, Langner said.

“One particular problem was delivering EAS alerts to the southeastern corner of New Mexico. The longstanding pathway had been the daisy chain relay of EAS messages originating at KKOB(AM), Albuquerque, the State Primary EAS station, via an Albuquerque TV station and its simulcast satellite station in Roswell, N.M.

“Understandably, the TV stations didn’t want to frequently interrupt local programming to carry EAS alerts that may have been important down the daisy chain but that didn’t affect those stations’ viewers,” he said.

Langner found the answer following a generous offer by KKOB(AM) to launch a private audio stream to the PBS TV and NPR radio affiliates in Portales, N.M., KENW television and radio. KENW’s radio and TV stations have extensive primary station and translator coverage throughout eastern and southeastern New Mexico, he said, and agreed to carry all relevant EAS alerts.

The state’s EAS and IPAWS systems have become far more effective, Langner said.

“By greatly improving the content of EAS alerts, and by equally improving the integrity of the EAS delivery system for state and local emergency messages, the state of New Mexico has solved problems that still beset a number of states,” he said. “The success of the New Mexico EAS system is a true public-private partnership with shared responsibilities and willing participation and support by all stakeholders.”

Share your own state’s story of evolving alerting infrastructure. Email[email protected]. For information about the New Mexico EAS system, its growth and service, contact Mike Langner byemail at [email protected].