(Updated 06/06/2008)

Agency reconsiders aggregator/gateway role for CMAS

The Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced last week that it would perform the unified aggregator/gateway role for the fledgling Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) after all. The system, mandated by the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, would provide the framework for commercial wireless carriers to send text alerts to their customers during emergencies.

The announcement represented an about-face for FEMA, which originally declined to take on the role because it believed it lacked the statutory authority to do so. That position drew the ire of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who last month called FEMA’s failure to step up “especially disheartening,” because the agency had a hand in establishing the aggregator/gateway function as a key component of the CMAS.

“It was … after the advisory committee had made its recommendation—and after FEMA’s representative had voted in favor of the unified federal gateway/aggregator scheme—[that] FEMA raised any objections to assuming this responsibility,” Copps said in the statement.

Copps also said that, without the aggregator/gateway function, the CMAS wouldn’t be able to function and noted that FEMA is experienced with originating emergency alerts and has received appropriations for operating an emergency-alert system.

While FEMA has been responsible for transmitting messages from the President to the American people since the emergency alert system was established in 1994—and for ensuring the infrastructure existed to transmit such messages—the agency historically has not played any role in authenticating emergency alerts from state and local officials, said FEMA spokeswoman Mary-Margaret Walker in an e-mail response.

Consequently, FEMA needed to determine whether it had the necessary legal authority to authenticate messages sent by a state or local emergency official and to develop and maintain such a system during a non-emergency situation, according to Walker.

“FEMA could not accept the … aggregator role until completion of a review of its authorities, which was not complete at the time FCC adopted its regulatory framework,” Walker said.

In a statement issued after FEMA announced it would accept that role, Copps said he was pleased that FEMA had reconsidered. “This is good news. … The real winners today are the American people, whose personal safety will be enhanced by receiving emergency alerts via their mobile phones, as well as their televisions and radios.”

The aggregator/gateway component of the system will verify that federal, state and local emergency alerts are authentic. Once verified, the CMAS will transmit the alerts to commercial carriers, which then will transmit them to their customers in the affected area.

Three types of alerts are envisioned for the system: presidential alerts for national emergencies; imminent-threat alerts to provide information about significant risks, such as a national or man-made disaster; and child-abduction or AMBER Alert emergency information.

All customers of participating carriers will be sent text-message information in emergency situations, unless a customer has opted out of the program. Commercial carriers are not required to participate in the CMAS.