Early warning, with caveats

Standards and coordination are at the heart of alert-system debate

President Bush's recent executive order to upgrade the nation's emergency warning system lays out an ambitious plan to coordinate a patchwork of federal, state and local alert systems.

But is it ambitious enough? Emergency warning experts say the June 26 order stops short of resolving a conflict involving an emergency warning data standard used by the Commerce and Homeland Security departments. It also doesn't designate an official to be in charge of emergency warning.

The order also fails to clarify whether an upgraded national public warning system will be based on open standards or proprietary technology.

Despite those gaps, the executive order is viewed as a positive development. 'It is long overdue, and there is a great need for it,' said Kenneth Allen, former executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning advocacy group.

Marching orders

The order designates DHS as the lead agency for public warning and, among other provisions, directs the Commerce Department to make its technology available to DHS in order to establish an integrated warning system.

Even so, whether the executive order will have broad reach is uncertain.

Some of those involved in writing standards have raised concerns about the National Weather Service's alleged modifications to a major emergency warning standard, the Common Alerting Protocol. CAP is an Extensible Markup Language-based, national open standard for universal alert messaging.

Industry and emergency managers developed the protocol, and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards adopted it in 2003. The Federal Emergency Management Agency endorsed it in 2004, and a number of government agencies are using it.

Art Botterell, the original CAP architect and a California emergency management official, recently protested the weather service's development of a 'dumbed down' version of the protocol for use in its new HazCollect, a national, all-hazards, emergency public warning system that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is developing.

'Regrettably, what [NOAA] is proposing to roll out nationwide in the next few months is a crippled and incomplete version of the Common Alerting Protocol data format,' Botterell wrote May 31 on a public message board.

The HazCollect program, which is intended to convey warning messages to federal, state and local emergency management offices and agencies as well as the public, does not include an important feature of the protocol, according to Botterell and others. Two major data fields of the protocol identify the hazard and provide instructions to the public on what actions to take. In the weather service's version, those two fields are combined, with the effect that urgent and critical instructions may be missed, Botterell said.

Failure to communicate

'CAP tells you what to do,' said David Aylward, executive director of the ComCare Alliance, a national, nonprofit advocacy group for improved emergency communications. 'The specific issue with HazCollect is that it was not able to pass on that information.'

Weather service officials have defended HazCollect, saying they fully intend for it to comply with CAP.

'NOAA is not rewriting the CAP specification and, as stated, needs to conform to CAP,' Herb White, dissemination services manager for the National Weather Service, wrote on the incident.com message board in June. White did not respond to several requests for further comment, and a weather service spokesman declined a request for comment.

Aylward said he believes the weather service will correct the problems and comply with CAP before debuting the program nationally.

'The good news is that the Commerce Department has committed to fixing this quickly,' he said.

'Since we made a flap about this, [weather service officials] are saying some positive things,' Botterell said.

The stakes are high, he added, because the National Weather Service is a high-profile agency with a broad reach into the emergency management community. If it eliminates the instruction field in emergency messages, it is likely that many state and local agencies will follow suit, and it would harm the effectiveness of the messages, Botterell said.

Another open issue is whether the federal government truly supports open standards such as CAP for a national warning system. The executive order calls for development of 'common alerting and warning protocols, standards, terminology and operating procedures ... to enable interoperability,' but does not specifically mention CAP.
'The order is very unclear with regard to the Common Alerting Protocol,' Aylward said.

Under the order, DHS will'within 120 days of the June 26 order'issue guidance on how to carry it out. Botterell said he hopes to find out whether DHS will then officially adopt CAP governmentwide.

Alice Lipowicz writes for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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