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How emergency alerts work, and why people near Baltimore County might have gotten one Wednesday

The Baltimore Sun

Have you ever seen an emergency alert on your phone or heard a radio program interrupted by a harsh tone followed by a warning?

Here’s what you need to know about emergency alerts and the authorities behind them:

What are emergency alerts?

Whenever there’s a serious emergency affecting a large group of people, it can be important to deliver information swiftly and through reliable channels.

In 2006, then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order to set up an “effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system” to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or other hazards to public safety.

Under that order, the Federal Emergency Management Agency created something called the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, which is now used by government and emergency agencies across the United States to communicate with the American people in times of trouble. IPAWS can be used to deliver many different kinds of emergency alerts, including Amber Alerts, severe weather warnings and messages like the kerosene alert sent in Baltimore County on Wednesday.

How does IPAWS work?

Typically, a government body or agency will send a request to distribute a message to IPAWS, whose operators will verify the authenticity of the message and then distribute it to the public. Some local agencies and governments, such as Baltimore City, have been granted the authority to distribute messages through the IPAWS platform, called OPEN, on their own.

Others, including Baltimore County, are still awaiting formal approval to be able to distribute messages on their own. In the meantime, the county does have a memorandum of understanding with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and IPAWS allowing it to use the system independently. Two other Maryland entities — Fort Meade Garrison Headquarters and the U.S. Army Garrison at Aberdeen Proving Ground — are also awaiting final approval to disseminate messages on their own, according to FEMA records.

When composing alerts, IPAWS follows an international standard developed, in part, by FEMA and in cooperation with private sector developers. Existing state or locally owned and operated warning systems — such as sirens, highway signs or emergency telephone notification systems — can be designed to integrate alerts from IPAWS.

Where are these alerts sent?

IPAWS and approved agencies like Baltimore City can select where they want messages to go based on the medium of communication, municipality or specific geographic area. Methods of communication include:

  • AM/FM and satellite radio
  • Broadcast cable and satellite television
  • Cellphones (even when networks are overloaded and can no longer support calls, texts and emails)
  • National Weather Service
  • Email, instant messaging and RSS feeds in any web browser
  • Landlines
  • Voice sirens
  • Digital road signs

The emergency management entity sending the message can decide, based on the situation, who will receive emergency alerts.

Is it a foolproof system?

Mistakes certainly happen. Who could forget the false emergency message delivered to Hawaiian residents in 2018? Or when the emergency flood alerts for Ellicott City arrived after residents said the water levels were already surging last May?

In the case of Wednesday’s kerosene alert, some residents in other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City, might have gotten the alert if they were near Baltimore County, depending on their location relative to cell towers that serve the county.

FEMA provides IPAWS best practices, training and drills for alerting authorities to learn how to effectively use the system.

Some alerts, such as an Amber Alert, carry an independent set of criteria for determining when to distribute emergency messages.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Cody Boteler contributed to this article.

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