EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — September 28, 2005

Speeding Emergency Messages to the Public

Herbert White
Dissemination Services Manager
NOAA's National Weather Service
Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our topic today is "HazCollect: Speeding Emergency Messages to the Public." This session is a follow up to an introductory session we did about a year ago, and is an update on implementation of the new system that will give local emergency managers direct access to the NWS warning dissemination system for non-weather emergencies such as hazardous material spills or terrorism.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker. Herbert White serves as Dissemination Services Manager in the National Weather Service's (NWS) Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services. In developing and managing product formats, codes, and service delivery from NWS communications systems, Mr. White helps to ensure effective dissemination of NWS products and further redistribution by NWS partners and customers. Since 2001, he has been active in enhancing NWS all-hazards dissemination and the national public warning capabilities.

Mr. White has held numerous positions in the NWS Employee's Organization, including National Director of Legislative and Public Affairs. He has written and edited a number of articles, white papers, and publications and testified before Congress on weather warning and forecasting issues. Please see the Background Page for further biographical information and links to topic-related material. Welcome to the Forum Herb, and thank you very much for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Herbert White:Thanks, Amy, it is great to be here. Let me start with a quick overview of our HazCollect initiative.

HazCollect is a system being developed by the National Weather Service (NWS) in partnership with FEMA. HazCollect, through voluntary participation, allows emergency management agencies and others at all levels of government - local, state, Federal - to generate messages for automated distribution through all NWS communication channels including the readily available and ubiquitous NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR). The purpose of the All-Hazards Emergency Message Collection System - or HazCollect for short - is the collection of emergency messages generated by local incident information sources for relay to the public. HazCollect supports Emergency Support Function #2 – Communications Annex of the National Response Plan.

In simple terms, an emergency manager creates a Non-Weather Emergency Message (NWEM), formerly known as a Civil Emergency Message (CEM), on a local computer, eliminating errors generated by slow, manual steps. The NWEM travels throughout the communication network of the NWS for immediate distribution to the public.

HazCollect differs from what is done today. Many jurisdictions have procedures in place to create and distribute critical emergency messages, but these can be characterized as:

  • manual, often involving voice to text transcription
  • different from place to place
  • slow with many distribution channels not used
  • subject to errors of all kinds, and
  • often not as secure as desired.

The following slide illustrates the general flow:

[Slide 1]

Local emergencies occur everyday, but if an emergency is of sufficient magnitude, an emergency manager may need to notify the media and the public. These messages include specific actions necessary to reduce the impact of the emergency such as evacuation orders or instructions for sheltering in place. This can be HazCollect’s role.

The EMA prepares a message using their own words and their specific knowledge of the local area and the incident on a PC using a tool that is part of FEMA’s DMIS, Disaster Management Interoperability Services. The message is formatted by DMIS in a relatively new but widely accepted industry standard format, CAP, or Common Alerting Protocol. This allows the message to be exchanged with many other CAP-enabled systems.

The information is posted (sent) to the DMIS server where it is authenticated and sent to the HazCollect server for authorization of geographic area. At the HazCollect server, the message is also reformatted for distribution through the NWS dissemination systems.

Once the message moves through these communication channels, it is disseminated via such well known and well used methods as NOAA Weather Radio, NOAA Weather Wire Service, EMWIN, Internet web pages, cell phones, pagers, facsimiles, etc. NWS messages also travel through the communication networks of private and commercial vendors enabling the widest distribution of the emergency message possible. The following slide is a screen shot of one of the message preparation screens in the DMIS NWEM tool.

[Slide 2]

Data for many of the fields is selected from choices in drop-down menus. One or more pre-canned "Call to Action" statements may be inserted. For example, an EMA could have pre-typed zone and wind direction specific "shelter in place" and evacuation route instructions for use around a chemical plant.

Only two fields are "free text" - Headline and Description. The description is a narrative statement that describes the "what, where, when and how you should respond" portion of the text message to be broadcast. It is limited in HazCollect to 200 words to accommodate the 2-minute maximum audio length imposed by EAS. Other NWEM tool features include a spell checker. Those who have looked at CAP will notice some other familiar fields on this screen.

No direct costs are involved in getting started with HazCollect. An emergency services agency will need:

  • a non-dedicated PC with a Pentium processor and 260MB free disk space
  • Internet access, dial-up or high speed
  • Software from DMIS (at no cost) or from private vendors

DMIS participation does not require exclusive use of the DMIS toolkit. An EMA office using other incident management software may still be able to use that software as long as it is CAP-enabled. An emergency manager will have options available to utilize HazCollect. The following slide illustrates the concept.

[Slide 3]

Option 1: An EOC is not presently using a commercially available software package. Such an EOC can make use of DMIS and the toolkits available in it. This is available from FEMA.

Option 2: An EMA office is currently using commercially available emergency management software such as Blue 292, EMnet, E Team, WebEOC, or others. Such software can be used as long as the software vendor takes the necessary steps to insure full interoperability with DMIS and HazCollect. This option will not be available until later in 2006. Commercially available software will need to meet interface specifications in order to work with the HazCollect system.

Specifically, it is important that whatever software is used, it must include the following:

  • CAP-enabled: this means that the software must conform to CAP that allows full exchange of information using an accepted industry standard.

  • Include CAP optional fields: this means that some fields considered optional in CAP must be included in order to work fully within HazCollect.

  • Interface with DMIS: commercial software must interface with DMIS.

The end result of this process is the rapid distribution of local emergency messages throughout the NWS and over all of the various distribution channels to the people who need and ultimately act on the information. The following slide is a diagram of the distribution system.

[Slide 4]

Once the message enters the system, it travels electronically, via NWEM text format and NWR audio, to end users in the local community. Use of SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) protocol on NWR will make the NWEMs available for broadcast according to local EAS plans.

We estimate using today’s manual procedures, processing emergency messages averages about 7 minutes. Using HazCollect, we estimate this process can be reduced to 2 minutes.

The next phase of HazCollect Development Test and Evaluation will resume in October. Earlier HazCollect testing produced correctly formatted test messages. A "live" message was transmitted end-to-end through NWS operational and test systems. HazCollect needs further testing after message creation and geocoding is fine-tuned by NWS and Battelle, the HazCollect primary contractor. During an Operational Acceptance Test (OAT) early this winter, select NWS offices nationwide will work with local emergency managers to send test (and actual, if any) emergency messages. The OAT will use installed test versions of the FEMA DMIS desktop toolkit.

Nationally, HazCollect should be available by the end of February, 2006. HazCollect registration will begin no earlier than November. However, DMIS registration is recommended now so DMIS may be used for incident management purposes and to gain familiarity with it for HazCollect use later.

More information including a brochure and a new PowerPoint is on the HazCollect website at http://weather.gov/os/hazcollect. The DMIS website is http://www.dmi-services.org. That's a brief overview, and I will be happy to respond to your questions and comments. I will now turn the floor back over to our moderator to get us started.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Herb. Now, to proceed to your questions.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Isabel McCurdy: Herb, was HazCollect used during either Hurricane Katrina or Rita?

Herb White: No, it was not. We do not have the test system ready even for online testing yet.

Burt Wallrich: Recent events show the tragic results of assuming that everyone will receive, TRUST, and act upon messages that come direct from government. Your system could be an effective part of an integrated system designed to reach the most hard-to-reach populations. If the local emergency management agency in a jurisdiction mobilizes local nonprofits and faith-based organizations to be part of a communications chain, provides them with NOAA radios, and conducts drills with them, information might reach those who otherwise would not get and/or respond to it. The key is including organizations that are trusted by residents in a planned and tested network.

Herb White: Excellent point Burt. We will have process to review and vet all registrants, but first all registrants must be DMIS trusted users.

Mark Tobert: What are the selected communities that are going to be the test sites and is there a means to get feedback from those tests?

Herb White: Kenai Burrough in Alaska, Contra Costa County in California and possibly the State of California, a northern Virginia town, a couple of counties in western Kentucky, and Puerto Rico. We have drafted a test and evaluation plan. It includes on-site assistance for the first couple of days then there will be occasional test message scenarios and frequent conference calls to follow the tests. [See test documentation at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/ops2/ops24/documents/hazcollect_docs.htm ]

Jeff Silberberg: I have a number of questions, but the first of them is with regards to CAP. Are you using the original open standard, or the enhanced standard now defined under the OASIS project? http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/overview.php

Herb White: Yes, CAP version 1.0 that was adopted by OASIS.

Gilbert Gibbs: Is there a mitigation plan in the works to keep local area public/private concerns from competing with each other and this excellent program, adding to any confusion for the public which is to be served?

Herb White: Gilbert, we work with local and state emergency managers in the State and Local EAS plans plus with the use of CAP some of the multiplicity issues are addressed. I hope that answers the question.

Steve Frost: Are SAME messages going to be sent both by computer and radio monitors? This would be in conjunction with what Burt was asking about earlier. Also are messages going to be available on cell phones, pagers other than commercial companies, such as Thunder Call, etc?

Herb White: The SAME code will only be transmitted on NOAA Weather Radio as it is today. However, the text messages will be transmitted over all of the NWS systems and the CAP formatted message will be available through DMIS and posted on the NWS Alerts web site. The text messages and CAP can be used by the myriad commercial and private interests to redistribute via public and private systems.

Matt Bruns: Herb, what you can tell us about how these CAP messages will be "addressed"? Will the EM be able to just draw a circle on a DMIS map to send a message to anyone in the region? Or is there another approach? Can it be sent to selected subgroups? (PD/FD/EM etc?)

Herb White: In the DMIS NWEM tool the emergency manager will select the county(s) or marine zone(s) from drop-down menus. Graphical solutions have been identified as a requirement, but will not be implemented in the initial DMIS NWEM tool capability. However, through commercial software that should be interfaced later next year more graphical capabilities may be available. If I understand the question, the answer to selected sub-groups is no.

Amy Sebring: Herb, can you explain a little more about the "geo-authorization" you mentioned? Will that be set up at the time of HazCollect registration? Does it mean associating the message originator with an authorized warning area?

Herb White: Yes that is part of the HazCollect registration. Yes the message originator is identified to DMIS and HazCollect as the COG (Collaborative Operations Group) working together, not usually a single person.

Jeff Silberberg: Do you expect that the first release of the translator will be VTEC enabled and will it be capable of generating more than just the CEM message, AKA CAE for Amber Alerts, etc on Slide 4?

Herbert White: HazCollect will not use VTEC; however, you bring up the very reason we are now referring to NWEMs instead of CEMs. HazCollect will create messages by the existing EAS/SAME event codes of which CEM is just one. CAE is for AMBER Alerts, CDW for Civil Danger Warning, etc.

Avagene Moore: Herb, two questions: What kind of training strategy and/or guidance is available or in the development stage for this effort? How much training will be necessary for those who are authorized to generate messages and how will training be handled?

Herb White: Training is being handled in several ways. Training for DMIS is available on the DMI-Services web site and available for scheduling from the DM program. HazCollect training will primarily use a PowerPoint presentation being developed concurrently with the software and we see the need to partner with emergency management organizations to train participants to write concise messages for direct broadcast to the public.

Chuck Zechman: Will local responders, citizens, businesses, etc. be able to receive the email "alerts"?

Herbert White: Yes, through existing and new vendors of such services. HazCollect is a service and system to collect and process emergency message and relay them to those services for further distribution.

Matt Bruns: Just to expand on this: the DMIS CAP Alert interface is used to send alerts within DMIS as well, or to other CAP enabled systems as they come on line, right? Herb, I apologize if you covered this earlier, but what restrictions, if any, are there on the types of messages that can be sent via HazCollect and out over Weather Radio? Will this it be weather only, or other events? (i.e., HazMat truck incident, security closure of an area, etc.) And if the message goes out as a NWS alert, I believe the systems that currently generate notification emails or pages will carry these, too. (emergencyemail.org for instance).

Herbert White: Matt, yes to your first question, but HazCollect also formats the CAP message into a message that is recognizable to all users who receive meteorological and weather forecast messages, such as on EMWIN etc. HazCollect will be a tool primarily for the emergency management community to transmit the non-weather emergency messages. HazCollect is primarily for non-weather messages for broadcast on NWR, to achieve EAS broadcast according to existing local EAS plans and to make the non-weather emergency messages available through the weather dissemination community that processes thousands of weather messages every day for public broadcast.


Amy Sebring: Herb, I am also a little unclear about weather-related vs. non-weather. For example, if a local jurisdiction issued an evacuation order in relation to a weather event such as hurricane or flood, could they put such a message out over the system?

Herb White: Amy, yes, emergency managers will be able to transmit evacuation orders and shelter in place instructions for instance.

Steve Frost: Will the SAME receivers being used now for "NOAA All Hazard Radio" have to be upgraded to receive the new codes?

Herb White: No changes will be needed to the new generation of NWR receivers or Public Alert receivers that have been produced with the new "SAME/EAS" codes introduced by the FCC EAS rulemaking in 2002.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much Herb for an excellent job. We hope you enjoyed the experience. Please stand by a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements.

Herb White: My pleasure. Please contact me at my email, Herbert.White at noaa.gov, if you wish.

Amy Sebring: Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page and click on Subscribe.

We have two new partners to announce, Emergency Services Integrators (ESI) - (maker of WebEOC ); Nadia Butler, Director, Product Development, Website: http://www.WebEOC.com

And we are also pleased to welcome back an old friend, Kevin Farrell, POC for Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Dept. See: http://www.apg.army.mil/apghome/sites/local/

If you are interested in becoming an EIIP Partner, please see the "Partnership for You" link on the EIIP Virtual Forum homepage http://www.emforum.org .

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Herb for a fine job.