This page contains best practices for IPAWS users (alerting authorities) as well as recommended software functions and features for users to consider when choosing an IPAWS compatible alert origination tool. The monthly IPAWS Tips can also be found here.
What Do I Need to Know About the New WEA Enhancements?
IPAWS has implement enhancements that will strengthen Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The WEA enhancements improve upon current WEA capabilities already in use by Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial emergency management, and public safety officials nationwide. Additional enhancements and capabilites include:
- Increasing the maximum character count from 90 to 360;
- Adding support for Spanish-language WEA;
- Adding two new alert categories in addition to Presidential, AMBER and Imminent Threat
- Public Safety Message - Less severe in nature than Imminent Threat
- WEA Test Message - Opt in message to support state and local WEA testing; and
- Enhanced geo-targeting reaching 100 percent of the targeted area with no more than 1/10th of a mile overshoot.
These enhancements require more than just the update to IPAWS. They require updates to wireless providers’ nationwide networks and customer phones, and to software that alerting authorities use to send alerts. However, below are frequently asked questions that will assist you when you leverage the new WEA enhancements.
Expanding from 90-character to 360-character WEA Messages
Q : What does it mean when I hear that WEA supports 360 characters?
- You can now include more characters of text in your WEA alerts. WEA alerts used to be limited to 90 characters. That is less than a Tweet. They can now include up to 360 characters. Alert originators can use these additional characters to communicate more information to the public about emergencies. The additional characters also enable alert originators to communicate more clearly, without relying on potentially confusing jargon or abbreviations. Be aware, not all phones support 360 characters yet, so for the time being 90 characters is required and 360 characters is optional.
Q : Can I now send WEA messages that allow for up to 360 characters to my community?
- Yes, provided that your alert origination software you use to send alerts via FEMA’s IPAWS to WEA supports this enhancement.
- Please note:
- People with newer mobile devices may receive the full 360 characters. However, people with older mobile may receive a 90-character message.
Contact your alert origination software provider if you are unsure whether your software allows you to take advantage of this WEA enhancement, or if your alert origination software does not yet support this WEA enhancement and you wish to use it.
- Please note:
Q : Since some members of the public will not be able to receive 360-character WEA alerts, should I also continue to send alerts in 90 characters?
Yes. Alert originators must include 90-character versions of their alerts to ensure the alert content is available to support older WEA-capable mobile devices and devices connected to older networks. They may also send a 360-character version to communicate additional information more clearly to for devices and networks that are ready to support 360.
If you include a 90- and a 360-character message in the same alert, wireless providers that participate in WEA will send the 90-character version to people using older phones and the 360-character version to people using newer phones.
Public Safety Messages
Q : What are Public Safety Messages? When should I use them?
Public Safety Messages are a new class of Wireless Emergency Alerts to be used to provide important emergency information to the public about a threat that may not be imminent and after an Imminent Threat has occurred to assist the public with life-saving response and recovery emergency information.
- Points to consider when deciding if it may be better to send a Public Safety Message instead of an Imminent Threat message:
- In order to promote public safety, is there a need for broad public action or awareness of an emergency condition that is occurring or likely to occur?
- Will a message assist to prevent public fear or serve to preserve critical public safety functions that are (or could be) overwhelmed (e.g., inappropriate use of 911)?
Q : Will my community receive Public Safety Messages just like any other WEA alert?
Not necessarily. Like Imminent Threat and AMBER Alerts, your community can opt out of receiving Public Safety Messages if they do not wish to receive them.
Some phones may offer their customers the ability to turn off Public Safety Messages during certain hours or may deliver Public Safety Messages with a different sound or vibration than other WEA alerts.
Be aware, not all phones support Public Safety Messages yet, so for the time being 90 characters is required and 360 characters is optional.
Q : Can IPAWS or the WEA system or wireless providers translate my English-language alerts into Spanish for me?
- No. You, as the alert originator, are responsible for your alert message content. Neither FEMA, nor wireless providers, nor consumer mobile devices will translate your English-language WEA message into a WEA message in another language for you. We encourage you to plan accordingly.
Q : I want to send a Spanish-language version of an alert to those members of my community that speak Spanish, but I don’t want everyone to receive it. Is that possible?
- No. The alert language displayed on a phone is dependent on the phone type and settings on the phone. Some phones display both the English version of the alert and the Spanish version of the alert. Some phone may show only the English or Spanish version of the alert depending on the default language setting of the phone.
Q : I only want to send a Spanish-language version of an alert, as those members of my community mostly speak Spanish. Is that possible?
- No. When sending a Spanish-language alert, an English-language version is also required. The alert language displayed on a phone is dependent on the phone type and settings on the phone.
State and Local WEA Tests
Q : How do the new WEA enhancements change how I test WEA in my community?
- The new WEA enhancements include a State/Local WEA Test option. Alerting Authorities may use the State/Local WEA Test without coordination with the FCC or FEMA. State/Local WEA Tests must include conspicuous language sufficient to make clear to the public that the message is, in fact, only a test. Consumer phones are delivered with the State/Local Tests disabled. In order to observe the results of sending a State/Local Test WEA in your community you will need to collect a group of participants and configure their phones to receive State/Local WEA Tests. State/Local Tests configuration is found either in a mobile device’s WEA interface or by following a specific set of instructions available from the wireless provider. We encourage you to plan accordingly.
Q. : How can my community affirmatively opt in to receive State/Local WEA Tests?
- Consumers can opt in to receiving State/Local WEA Tests on their mobile devices. This functionality is generally available within device settings, but some phones require special instructions and steps necessary to access hidden menus or functions of the phone. The exact means vary by mobile device or provider.
Q. Do I need to do anything in advance of sending a State/Local WEA Test?
Alerting Authorities may use the State/Local WEA Test without coordination with the FCC or FEMA.
You will need to collect a group of participants and configure their phones to receive State/Local WEA Tests.
You should engage in extensive outreach to your community to socialize the benefits of public participation in State/Local WEA Tests and to raise public awareness about the benefits of receiving WEA test messages.
- This outreach may include coordinating with local leadership, wireless providers that offer service within your area, public information officers, and other emergency authorities that operate within and adjacent to the testing area. Specifically, first responder organizations such as police and fire agencies and 911 call centers should be aware of your test to ensure that they can confirm to the public that the WEA message is, in fact, only a test.
- You should also engage in pre-test publicity efforts, including public outreach through press releases and social media, to apprise the public of the upcoming WEA test and how to opt in to receive the test, as well as the benefits of WEA if an actual emergency arise.
Q : I want to conduct a WEA Test, but I don’t want to disturb everyone in my community. What can I do?
- Unlike other types of alerts, your community is opted out of receiving State/Local WEA Tests by default. The only people in your community who will receive these test messages are those who have configured their phone to affirmatively opt in to receiving State/Local WEA Tests.
- There is another option available. Your alert origination software can offer that capability to test with the FEMA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Lab so that you can do proficiency training exercises that do not reach the public.
Q. Do I need to request a waiver from the FCC to conduct a WEA Test?
Not if you use the State/Local WEA Test option. The FCC’s rules permit authorized alert originators to send State/Local WEA Tests without requesting a waiver from the FCC. The FCC’s rules otherwise require authorized alert originators to request a waiver to use the WEA Attention Signal.
Geographic Accuracy of WEA
Q : When creating a polygon, what considerations must I bear in mind?
- Each polygon cannot have more than 100 vertices/points. Additionally, each CAP message is limited to 10 shapes.
Q : How has the geographic accuracy of WEA alerts improved across all wireless providers and mobile devices?
- When the WEA program launched, participating wireless providers were generally required to send alerts to a geographic area no larger than the county or counties affected by the emergency. As of November 2017, however, all participating wireless providers were required to transmit alerts to a geographic area that best approximates the area the alert originator specifies, even if it is smaller than a county. In addition, beginning December 18, 2019, participating wireless providers were required to improve geo-targeting of alerts even further. How does it work? When you initiate an alert with a delivery area that is specified by using a polygon or circle, wireless providers must “match” the specified target area and deliver alerts to the area you specify with no more than a one-tenth of a mile overshoot. Wireless industry determined the only way to do that was to use device-based geo-targeting. This is based on location processing in the mobile phone itself. The handset receives the alert including the polygon, then the phone uses its GPS assisted location to determine whether it is inside or outside the polygon.
Q: Why do mobile phones outside of the alert area receive a WEA?
- Enhanced geo-targeting is also designed to deliver alerts to 100 percent of WEA-capable mobile phones inside the targeted alert area in addition to not alerting mobile phones that are more than 1/10th of a mile (528 feet) outside the targeted alert area. Wireless providers send the geographic information of the alert target area with the WEA message that is broadcast from cell sites near the targeted alert area. Upgraded mobile phones that receive a WEA with geographic information then use the device location functions to determine if the mobile phone is inside or outside of the targeted alert area.
- Upgraded WEA-capable mobile phones will only display an alert if they are inside the targeted alert area
- Standard WEA-capable mobile phones will display any alert received even if the mobile phone is outside of the targeted alert area.
- Because mobile phones inside a targeted alert area may be connected to a cell site that is outside of the alert area, wireless service providers broadcast the WEA message from cell sites that are outside but near the targeted alert area. While this helps to maximize delivery of WEA to mobile phones inside the targeted alert area, it many times also results in alerting mobile phones outside the targeted alert area.
- This technology is evolving and not all handsets support device based geo-fencing at this time. In time, all devices will support it either through a software upgrade or out of the box. Therefore, you will experience overreach until technology catches up to the FCC requirement. Note that wireless providers will continue to deliver the alert to an area that best approximates the target area in instances where they are technically incapable of matching it, such as for mobile devices without location services enabled or when part of the target area is outside of a wireless provider’s coverage area. Using the State/Local WEA Tests function is the only way to find if improved geo-targeting of alerts is available from the wireless providers in your area. The FCC and FEMA do not know which wireless providers are capable of improved geo-targeting.
Preservation of WEA Alerts
Q : What does it mean that WEA alerts will now be preserved?
- Consumer mobile devices previously took varying approaches to providing access to WEA alerts after the user had viewed and dismissed them. Now, newer mobile devices will preserve alerts on the device so that they are accessible for at least 24 hours or until the user deletes them. The ability to go back and review alert message content is more important than ever, given other recent WEA improvements that enable alerts to contain additional information. The location of the preserved alerts and method of viewing them is different from device to device. Check with your wireless provider to learn where alerts are preserved and how to access them.
Q : When can I start to expect WEA alerts to be preserved on my mobile device?
- This requirement was effective December 18, 2019; however some wireless provider devices may need to be upgraded to support the requirement. Check with your wireless provider to learn where alerts are preserved and how to access them.
Q : What is an embedded reference?
- An embedded reference is data, like a hyperlinked URL or phone number, that an alert recipient can click to perform an action related to the alert. For example, an AMBER Alert could include a hyperlink that directs the alert recipient to a webpage containing further information about a missing child. Or, a Public Safety Message could offer the public an alternative 10-digit number to call to reach emergency services after a hurricane causes a 9-1-1 outage.
Q : Why should I use embedded references in my WEA alerts?
- The availability of embedded content empowers emergency managers to offer the public alerts that can direct them to more comprehensive emergency response resources, including multimedia such as pictures or maps showing evacuation routes. Including an authoritative URL in an alert can lead to swifter community response, improve accessibility, facilitate the public’s use of 9-1-1 services, and provide alert originators with a method to update the public on fast-developing events.
Q : Are there best practices for using embedded references in WEA alerts?
- We urge emergency managers to continue to convey the most important actionable information through the message text. This will ensure that all members of the public are able to receive that information, even if they are unable to access the URL.
- Before using a web link in a WEA alert, we urge all alert originators to take appropriate steps to ensure that the web resource to which an embedded URL directs the public has sufficient capacity to handle increased consumer traffic.
- Before using a telephone number in a WEA alert, we urge emergency managers to consider the capacity of their call centers or hotlines.
- The use of URL shorteners (i.e. tinyurl, goo.gl, bit.ly) can be used for long URLs. However, consider using direct links to resources on your agency’s official domain when possible so that the public can recognize and trust the website location.
IPAWS Best Practices
The IPAWS Program Office created a presentation as an aid for IPAWS users (alerting authorities) to realize the benefits of testing, training, and exercising by providing best practices, considerations, and methodologies. An accompanying presentation focuses on suggested functions, features, and layouts for Alert Origination Tools based on IPAWS subject-matter experts.
Access the IPAWS Best Practices Presentations.
Deciding whether to issue a public alert or warning can be a difficult decision. Ultimately, it is a matter of local judgment. IPAWS, and the associated delivery pathways, is a valuable tool that will allow you to serve those in your respective jurisdictions during an emergency. Regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic and distribution of public safety information, FEMA created a document that describes how state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments can best use IPAWS to inform the public of the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic disease (COVID-19) response actions. The document is a list of key findings and considerations for jurisdictions and communities regarding ongoing COVID-19 operations across the country. These are best practices for consideration and do not constitute and should not be considered as guidance in any way.
Access the COVID-19 Best Practice Information for IPAWS.
The IPAWS Program Management Office distributes a monthly "tip" to emergency managers and software vendors regarding the IPAWS program, software tools, and other relevant issues. The tips will also cover best practices and recommendations for both alerting authorities and the vendor community. After the tips are sent they will be posted for the public here.
Continuity of Broadcast
The "Continuity of Broadcast Operations - Every Station Should Have a Plan" article presents a framework and best-practices for developing a solid Continuity of Broadcast Operations (COBO) plan for companies, clusters or single stations to be prepared for major disasters. Mass media plays a critical role both in the pre-disaster preparation and warning phase, as well as during and after the emergency. However, broadcasters are sometimes directly affected by these disasters and should have a plan in advance to manage any emergency.