Emergency Alert Systems

Types of EASs

While EASs need not rely on advanced technology—the story of Paul Revere’s ride could be construed as a historic emergency alert, and into the 20th century, phone trees and tornado sirens were lower-tech examples—the growth of such systems did benefit from technological development. In the wake of the Cold War and with the advancement of radio and television technologies, the audio tones of the Emergency Broadcast System (since renamed the Emergency Alert System) became familiar warnings. The next major wave of attention to warning systems came in the aftermath of incidents such as the attacks on September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which through tragedy brought increased attention to emergency management, generally, including public notification. Since that time, EAS structures have grown substantially, with virtually all jurisdictions having some type of system in place to provide notifications regarding issues from weather alerts to AMBER Alerts providing notifications about missing or abducted children, to notifications such as Silver Alerts pertaining to persons with Alzheimer’s or dementia who are reported missing, to shelter in place or evacuation messages, to emergency or disaster situations, and more.

There are a variety of mechanisms through which EASs can be structured. National, state, and local governments can utilize the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, which is a partnership with cellular telephone service providers to deliver emergency notifications to mobile devices. WEA notifications are geographically targeted, meaning that an alert can be sent to all devices within a certain geographic area, delivered through cellular telephone towers in that area. This helps ensure that only devices in areas for which the alert is necessary receive the notification. Wireless carriers may choose whether or not to participate in the system; for those who do, customers can choose to opt out of receiving alerts, except for those issued by the president of the United States.

Another popular alternative for local governments is the use of reverse 9-1-1 systems. As the name suggests, these systems are capable of delivering a phone message—and in some cases a text message—to numbers archived within a jurisdiction’s 9-1-1 system. Reverse 9-1-1 systems generally begin with the presumption that all persons (with phones) in the jurisdiction will participate, but they may allow an opt-out option for those who do not wish to do so. Some localities also utilize third-party emergency notification providers; there are a number of private companies that provide mass notification services through phone, text messaging, email, and smartphone applications. Local governments contract these services for their residents, and participation is often on an opt-in model, in which residents who wish to participate submit their preferred contact information. In some cases, participants can even select the types of notifications they wish to receive. In many of the aforementioned systems, messages may also be targeted to phones associated with addresses in specific geographic areas within a jurisdiction, to allow customized notifications based on location.

Governments and institutions may also incorporate social media into their EASs. Postings to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow messages to be distributed quickly and to a wide audience. Local or institutional webpages can also be structured to have an emergency mode, in which only basic content is included with most of the page dedicated to providing information and updates about an emergency or crisis situation.

From this discussion, it quickly becomes clear that there is not one single EAS but rather a multitude of systems specific to various jurisdictions and institutions. In some cases, these systems may overlap (e.g., a resident living, working at a hospital, and attending college in the same town could potentially subscribe to emergency alerts for the hospital, college, and town, in addition to receiving WEA messages). In an effort to bring together what would individually be a fragmented approach to emergency notification, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has developed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, also known as IPAWS. The purpose of this system is to allow coordination between and among systems, so otherwise disparate systems can be tied together to provide the most effectively targeted communications for incidents that extend beyond institutional or jurisdictional boundaries.

In considering EASs, it is important to recognize that they are only as effective as the messages they deliver. Messages must be written clearly, be easily understandable, and provide the necessary and specific information to help the audience know what to do. Messages must also be accessible to persons who speak languages other than English and to persons whose vision or hearing is impaired. Additional technologies may be required of some systems to accomplish these goals.

Security, Surveillance, Privacy, and EASs

The primary purpose of EASs is to notify the public of an emergency situation. EAS usage has expanded as new notification technologies have emerged, and EASs will likely continue to develop in an effort to reach as many members of the public as possible. The primary goal of EAS usage is to promote public safety and security, both by notifying the public of actual or potential threats and by providing instructions regarding protective actions for the public to take.

EAS usage also has implications for surveillance, consistent with the growth in what some have called a surveillance culture, in which the public is increasingly vigilant against security threats. Members of the public who have received an EAS notification can report information to appropriate authorities. For instance, law enforcement social media accounts, AMBER Alerts, Clery Act notifications of reported crimes on college and university campuses, Silver Alerts of missing senior adults, and other forms of notification can informally deputize the public as eyes and ears of public safety first responders, to share information about offenses under investigation or sightings of missing persons. Likewise, EAS messages can be used to solicit from the public information about changing circumstances in natural disasters or other unfolding incidents, which can be used to promote the situational awareness of responders—such as what streets are unpassable due to flood waters, the depth of snowfall, locations of persons in need of evacuation, and other information.

At the same time, EASs have been criticized for privacy considerations. On one level, the public sometimes may feel that their personal privacy is violated by receiving messages that they do not deem to be worthy of EAS notification. This has demonstrated the importance of having accepted protocols regarding the types of messages for which EASs should (and should not) be used. Care must be taken so that the public perceives that an EAS notification, when made, truly is for a significant issue. For instance, using a school-based EAS to distribute a sports schedule would not be appropriate, but using it to announce a weather-based shelter-in-place alert would be.


Development and use of EASs is currently a standard procedure in emergency planning and public safety policy. Doing so yields benefits in the area of security. EAS planners and operators must be cognizant of addressing issues or concerns related to the areas of surveillance and privacy to ensure a system that most effectively reaches, and is perceived as legitimate and valuable by, the public.

Stephen S. Owen

See also AMBER Alerts ; Cell Phone Tracking ; Email ; Smartphones ; Texting ; U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Further Readings

Federal Communications Commission. “Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).” https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-emergency-alerts-wea (Accessed June 2016).

Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Integrated Public Alert & Warning System.” https://www.fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-warning-system (Accessed October 2014).

Gray, Robin Hattersley. “Campuses Continue to Invest in Emergency Notification Systems and Upgrades.” Campus Safety, v.22/2 (2014).

Hsu, Spencer. “Bush Orders Update of Emergency Alert System.” The Washington Post (June 27, 2006). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/26/AR2006062601304.html (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Department of Education. The Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting. Washington, DC: Author, 2011. https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/handbook.pdf (Accessed June 2016).