Mass Notification System Overview

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Emergency management is the hallmark of good planning, especially in the face of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Mass notification in particular has found a home where it comes to alerting a large number of people of imminent danger, such as an approaching hurricane.

The mass notification idea is not new. In 1948 the concept began with the first tornado alert system, which was installed in Oklahoma City near Tinker Air Force Base (AFB). In 1950, the CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) system was created, which ushered in the “Duck and Cover” films that baby boomers were subjected to in public schools across America.

It was in 1963 when the Emergency Broadcasting System (EBS) started operations. Between 1976 and 1996, EBS provided more than 20,000 alerts nationwide. In December 2002, the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC 4-021-01) was issued by the Department of Defense (DOD), along with a number of other standards that act to support UFC.

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For example, in October of 2005, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard–using XML–was adopted. CAP enables the transmission of critical data in an XML format so other systems can use it for a variety of purposes. This came as a result of the Effective Disaster Warnings Report published by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NSTC was established by an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton. Less than a year later, June 2006, the “Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)” was established.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “In the event of a national emergency, the President will be able to use IPAWS to send a message to the public quickly, easily, and simultaneously through multiple communications paths in order to reduce loss of life and property damage. In addition, IPAWS will provide state, territorial, tribal, and local governments with the capability to integrate their alert and warning systems with the national alert and warning infrastructure” (
IPAWS involves just about every method of communication in use, integrating them into the nation’s current emergency management system:

  • Mobile phones
  • Hardline telephones
  • Facsimile services
  • Pagers
  • Electronic mail
  • Personal digital assistants (PDAs)
  • Personal computers (PCs)
  • Outdoor digital road signs
  • Loud speakers (Base Wide/Wide Area MNS)
  • Indoor digital signage

Today, both CAP and IPAWS are the official emergency warning protocols used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

(Author: Al Colombo, Direct link to this page:

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