How Colleges Can Leverage FEMA’s IPAWS Program to Save Lives in an Emergency

The Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS) provides authenticated emergency information to the public via mobile phones.

Historical records have shown that natural disasters, man-made incidents, and technological emergencies in the United States are increasing in frequency, intensity, and complexity. These disasters lead to devastating results in terms of loss of life, destruction of public infrastructure and personal property, environmental degradation and impacts on the daily lives of the general public.

University and college communities depend on public safety officials to provide emergency notices when threats and hazards present an immediate danger to their health, safety and well-being. In response, emergency management officials have invested resources in professionalizing their emergency response approach by implementing new strategies, techniques and technologies to provide the public with timely, actionable, emergency information. specific and educational in the event of an emergency.

A powerful program available to local emergency management officials is the Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS), developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a modernized national emergency management system. local alert. FEMA’s IPAWS program gives federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and public sector organizations (such as universities and colleges) the ability to send emergency alerts simultaneously through multiple communication channels.

One communication channel, specifically the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, issues short text-based emergency messages that are broadcast from cell towers to WEA-enabled mobile devices (including all smartphones ) in case of emergency. WEAs are geo-targeted messages designed to grab your attention with a unique sound and vibe to motivate life-saving actions and results.

There have been many real-world success stories across the country where local public safety officials have used IPAWS, and in particular WEA, to save lives during all-hazards emergencies. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), WEA alerts have been used more than 62,000 times to notify the public of missing children (AMBER alerts); hazardous weather conditions, such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and severe storms; the COVID-19 pandemic; curfews; hazardous materials incidents; and more.

7 Reasons Colleges and Universities Would Benefit from Using IPAWS

Since the inception of the IPAWS program in 2006, 1,600 public sector agencies have been licensed to leverage IPAWS for all-hazards warning, and more than 100 agencies are in the process of being licensed. However, there are currently only a handful of public universities and colleges authorized to send IPAWS alerts to their campus jurisdictions.

For decades, universities and colleges have experienced natural and man-made disasters, leading the US Congress to pass legislation focused on campus safety, emergency notification and crime reporting. Both the Clery Act and the Higher Education Opportunities Act require universities and colleges receiving federal funding to implement appropriate policies, procedures, and strategies to ensure campus safety and security.

Much like municipalities in cities and counties, universities and colleges in the United States often cover large geographic areas, have a complex and dispersed nature of governance, are self-governing but geographically integrated into the surrounding community, have campus populations transients and operate complex businesses in addition to their academic programs.

These businesses include hospitals, research and development facilities, entertainment venues, sports complexes, agricultural centers, residential complexes, food services and transportation systems. These critical businesses generate enormous profits and prestige and, if affected, could significantly disrupt service delivery and day-to-day business operations on campus.

The IPAWS program, and specifically the WEA program, is a powerful tool that greatly increases a university or college’s emergency response capabilities to alert and warn the campus population in the event of an emergency. The benefits of the WEA program for campus public safety officials include:

  1. Promptly provides recipients with essential life-saving instructions.
  2. Recipients with WEA-enabled phones are automatically enrolled in the WEA program. Alert students, faculty, staff and visitors on campus without saving phone numbers.
  3. Messages are broadcast from area cell towers to WEA-enabled mobile phones in a defined geographic location. Every WEA-enabled phone within range receives the message.
  4. WEA messages reached 100% of the target area with a maximum overshoot of 1/10 of a mile (528 feet).
  5. The WEA system is not affected by local network congestion that occurs during emergencies.
  6. Messages can be sent in English and Spanish.
  7. WEA messages may include embedded content such as a hyperlinked URL, phone number, image, or map.

Most universities and colleges have some form of facility-based, outdoor/large-scale, and/or personal notification system in place (or a network of systems) to alert and warn their campus populations . The IPAWS-WEA program provides campus emergency managers with another robust, redundant, and resilient emergency notification system to operate in the event of an emergency.

Public universities and colleges interested in becoming an IPAWS Alert Authority should first consult with their state IPAWS representative, usually within the state Emergency Management Agency. If initial approval is provided, the university or college can apply directly to FEMA-IPAWS by following four simple steps:

  1. Complete IPAWS web-based training
  2. Select IPAWS Compliant Software
  3. Apply for a Memorandum of Understanding with FEMA
  4. Request public alert permissions

This is the IPAWS Program Planning Toolkit. It includes a link to register for the IPAWS.


Gil Zavlodaver is the Director of Professional Services for Alertus Technologies, a provider of mass emergency notification solutions. In his role, Gil oversees a department that helps clients develop and improve their emergency management programs using personalized service offerings and resources.

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