Incorporate CAP to Improve Emergency Messaging Performance

Here's how UCLA applies this standard for effective emergency alerting.
Published: November 8, 2010

I recently saw a press release from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announcing the adoption of a new digital message format (“the nation’s next generation emergency alert and warning network”) using the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).     

I am surprised the DHS is calling this is a “new” format, it isn’t. Perhaps because it is a new or emerging to them? 

The CAP standard has been around for well over two decades. California adopted use of CAP for the Emergency Digital Information System (EDIS)  for communication or aggregation of emergencies, natural disaster information, exercise advisories, weather advisories, and amber alerts. The media has used EDIS as a part of California’s Emergency Alert System (EAS) – yep that old thing we see tested every month. The EDIS system is free, and has many subscribers. I have been using it as a job resource since 1992.

While many prominent federal officials were listed in the new CAP standard announcement, one glaring omission was noted. Art Botterell. Art was and has been a key player in development of CAP with scores of other disaster experts worldwide. Botterell created the California EDIS system back in 1989 when he was working for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), now affectionately called CAL-EMA. Many agencies and the private sector have tinkered with the CAP standard since 1990 trying to improve delivery of emergency messages and communication models to our communities.

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Disparate Mass Notification Systems Can Be Hard to Manage

I became personally involved with CAP in 2006 when I became emergency management program manager at UCLA. The university had many individual mass warning and communication systems already in place. When I needed to issue an alert, I was forced to sit down and individually operate about six different systems and hardware stations to issue warnings and advisories. When I left the office, there was nobody left to activate the systems. If I had to issue a warning, I had to respond immediately back to the campus and get into the office to operate the systems.

This issue has perplexed many higher education institutions nationwide. It is also the primary reason many mass warning systems end up being assigned to law enforcement agencies or housed in 9-1-1 dispatch centers; they are usually the only entity stationed on campus 24/7. Most campus administrators have left their offices by 7 p.m. There had to be a better way. This challenge motivated me to get innovative and seek a solution.

I had known Art Botterell for nearly a decade before I came to UCLA. Art was the manager in the Contra Costa County (Co. Co. County) Sheriff’s communications center, having designed their community warning system. The Co. Co. County system was designed around the CAP, and the CAP standard was basis for integrating all of their warning system components together with a geographical system interface. 

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I worked with Art and many other experts to develop a CAP-based, integrated mass warning system specifically for UCLA. After the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, I gave most of my full-time attention to developing our integrated system, as UCLA is the highest populated campus in California. I knew something bad could happen; in my mind, it was not a matter of if but when?  I didn’t sleep well at night. 

Over the next 18 months, by mid-2008, UCLA had completed its CAP-based, integrated mass warning system called “BruinAlert”, one of the first higher education campuses in the nation to develop such a system. In 2008 and 2009, UCLA received two awards for development of the CAP-based ENS system. 

UCLA Alerting Solutions Are Now CAP Compliant

Today, all of our mass warning components are tied to the CAP standard that will be heralded by DHS and FEMA; all future system components for UCLA must be CAP-based. I can now operate our mass warning devices (SMS/text, AM radio, cable television EAS scroller, outdoor warning devices, digital signage, and other components) simultaneously from any laptop computer at home or in the office – from a single menu that is linked to our SMS/text system menu.

I just point and click to turn off or on the systems I need in a crisis. All of our scenarios are pre-programmed, just add a location, and activate – it’s just that simple. In an emergency every second counts. I can now issue a mass warning in under a minute in what previously took over 30 minutes three-four years ago. 

It doesn’t matter whether the emergency is at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., and one of the best outcomes is it won’t create additional work for our law enforcement dispatchers when the crisis is at full tilt. 

Campus Has Designated Emergency Management Personnel 

Our mass warning system is all managed under the campus emergency management office. That allows the public safety dispatchers to do their jobs; focus on emergency field communication and coordination, and deal with the 9-1-1 phone systems. Most 911 communication centers in a higher education setting do not have extra personnel and resources to dedicate to mass warning system deployment, and our model recognizes that challenge.  

The UCLA emergency management office, using CAP-based standards, has three staff dedicated full-time, 24/7 trained to meet the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) provisions related to emergency notification and warning systems. Emergency managers have the expertise and training to manage mass warnings, and we have taken pro-active steps to improve our response capability. This is an approach I highly recommend all U.S. campuses adopt.

CAP isn’t new. CAP has worked well for many decades. Now we get to see what happens to CAP under federal control. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence. The federal government isn’t known for its many recent successes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be the lead agency responsible for adopting and enforcing the requirements to ensure that communications service providers have the capability to receive and transmit emergency alerts to the public.

Programs like the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) using the CAP standard offers some hope that our mass warning systems will become easier to operate and easier to activate. Perhaps more important than any other aspect, the systems should all play together nicely, complimenting each other rather than competing. IPAWS offers emergency managers in the future, better purchasing options, and more capability to interact with existing systems. Only time will tell.

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