Lawmakers want to give the federal government the sole responsibility for missile alerts

State and local governments have been largely responsible for alerting the public of threats from natural disasters and severe weather. But the system they use rests upon a patchwork of technologies and procedures that do not follow consistently across the government agencies that issue these alerts. The false alarm in Hawai’i highlighted some of the weaknesses in the state’s emergency alert system, which had a poorly designed user interface and did not have sufficient verification system or computer redundancies to act as a safeguard from mistakes. The incident made clear that there is a need for federal standards in the system and called into question the state’s responsibility to issue a missile alert.

The Schatz-Harris-Gardner legislation would strengthen the way states and local governments use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the FEMA platform emergency management professionals across the country use to issue warnings. The ALERT Act would:

— Restrict the authority to alert the public of a missile threat to the Federal government.  It would also require FEMA to establish a process to promptly notify state authorities when a missile alert is issued so they can activate their own protective action plans to ensure public safety;

— Require the IPAWS subcommittee of the FEMA National Advisory Council to make recommendations on the best practices that state and local governments should follow to maintain the integrity of IPAWS.  At a minimum, the subcommittee would make recommendations regarding the incident management tools used to originate alerts, and the procedures for testing and sending notifications to the public to avoid false alarms; 

— Require FEMA to establish minimum requirements for state and local governments to participate in IPAWS within 120 days of receiving the subcommittee’s recommendations.  States would have reasonable time to implement any new requirements FEMA imposes;

— Require FEMA to establish a process to test the incident management and warning tool that a state or local government adopts to originate and send alerts to the public in the FEMA IPAWS Lab and to certify it meets any technical requirements that FEMA adopts; and

— Require FEMA to review its Emergency Operations, National Watch and Regional Watch Centers to assess their ability to track state and local alerts issued under IPAWS and determine which ones they should be notified about when states send them out.

In addition to Senators Schatz, Harris, and Gardner the ALERT Act is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawai’i).