Police Emergency Disaster Alerts Used to Assist Law Enforcement Agencies
Written by Michael Leiva   

A tornado has been spotted in a residential section of town, the emergency tornado sirens are going off but still some people are unaware or driving on the road.

A severe thunderstorm brings 8 inches of water to the adjacent town causing its dams to break and now the river is flooding your town. The TV and radio stations are trying to put out the message but many people are at work and haven’t heard the alert.

The National Weather Service (NWS) sends out Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) about “weather watches, warnings and advisories from both the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and Atom Syndication Format (ATOM) through the Emergency Alert System (EAS).”* According to the NWS these alerts can be “used to launch Internet messages, trigger alerting systems, feed mobile device (e.g., cell phone/smart phone and tablet) applications, news feeds, television text captions, highway sign messages, and synthesized voice over automated telephone calls or radio broadcasts.”* They can be specifically targeted to devices that are operating in a certain geographical location that receive signals from cell towers.

On June 26, 2006, Executive Order 13407 authorized the Secretary of Homeland Security to “establish or adopt, as appropriate, common alerting and warning protocols, standards, terminology, and operating procedures for the public alert and warning system to enable interoperability and the secure delivery of coordinated messages to the American people through as many communication pathways as practicable, taking account of Federal Communications Commission rules as provided by law.”* This order is what enables the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to alert the public about impending or committed terrorist acts through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

With the recent increase of violent crimes including mass murder, kidnapping, and localized terrorist attacks; the government, specifically local law enforcement, needs to better inform its citizens. During the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing tragedies, law enforcement agencies were able to send out some critical public information. In both instances alerts ranged from a couple of minutes to almost 2 hours.* Further complicating these tragedies was the lack of focus of communication. Little or no information was given about public safety or reporting. Parents, family and friends either found out through the news, internet, or were on the scene.

Law enforcement officials need to be able to use local media outlets to disseminate critical information that may save lives. The technology already exists for this to happen but the issue is authority approval and the messages to be disseminated.

One of the nation’s first pioneers of “subscribed” alert messaging systems was Virginia Tech University. After the campus shooting on April 16, 2007 that resulted in 32 deaths and 17 wounded; the Governor’s Office ordered a report be made. In the Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech Report, Key Findings Section, 4 of the 21 findings discuss alert communications and notifications.* Virginia Tech has since created VT Alerts and the university Office of Emergency Management has created VTGemini; both systems are multi-modal alerts and messages that inform subscribers of emergencies and recommended courses of action to follow.* VT Alerts and other similar systems are proactive approaches but do not account for other people who either choose not to subscribe or are guests/visitors that are in the area and do not have access to these alert notifications. Due to tragedies and emergencies like the Virginia Tech Massacre many businesses, schools, organizations and city councils have now started to utilize emergency alert notification systems. Some of these organizations require their employees, students or parents to subscribe to these notifications while others are voluntary. The issue with this methodology is that it is reactive and requires the individual to register or subscribe for the service.

A proactive and focused approach would be to utilize the Emergency Alert System (EAS) along with having the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) only broadcast phone and text messages to cell phone towers in the affected area and surrounding vicinity if needed. For example (see fig. 1), building (d) gets bombed and destroyed. Local law enforcement and City Emergency Management Services want to be able to respond, communicate and recover quickly and correctly. In addition, law enforcement wants to gather data, evidence and confirm how the building was destroyed or who destroyed it. Using cell towers (3), (5), and (8) to emit an emergency alert, citizens in the area will know what happened and receive security and safety instructions. Furthermore, law enforcement personnel can better coordinate response efforts once citizens are safe and secure.

Another example of how using cell tower convergence can assist law enforcement is in responding to immediate threats. A sniper shooter is seen in the neighborhood (b). Citizens in the immediate area need to take cover and carry out shelter-in-place procedures. While citizens throughout the city need to be aware of the danger, there is no need to send out a city-wide cell emergency alert. Citizens may want to go to the neighborhood causing themselves to become targets of the shooter. Any citizens driving through the neighborhood area would receive the alert and know to leave or find an alternate route.

Both of the above mentioned examples would allow city officials to inform the public of an emergency and, more importantly, give law enforcement personnel the ability to effectively issue safety and security instructions. All states are required by law to have the National Weather Service Emergency Alert System and Amber Alerts; several states have other similar alerts such as Gray or Blue Alerts with different criteria. The common theme all these alerts have is to inform citizens of some type of disaster, emergency or criminal event.

In order to better serve and protect the public, local law enforcement agencies need to be able to disseminate timely information to a specific area. The relationship between the cities’/towns’ elected Mayors, Emergency Management Officers and police is critical. Certain crimes or terrorist activities which involve loss of life or significant property damage need to be disseminated quickly. Issuing a Police Emergency Disaster (PED) alert would assist with informing the public of safety/security measures and possibly with solving the crime and receiving citizen reports of the crime. Local law enforcement agencies through the FCC’s Emergency Alert System need to be mandated and regulated into state and federal law, which will assist all levels of government in emergency management.

Illustration 1: Use of Cell Tower Convergence during a Police Emergency Disaster.


Illustration 1: Use of Cell Tower Convergence during a Police Emergency Disaster. Source: Michael Leiva, June 06, 2013.

About the Author:

Major Michael Leiva, is an active duty Army Major assigned as an instructor in the Tulane Army ROTC Department. Michael recently received his Master of Homeland Security from Tulane in 2013. Major Leiva has over 10 years' experience in the military as a leader, assistant operations officer and commander. Michael worked with the Iraqi Army and Police in Tikrit, Iraq assisting them with command and control during combat operations and response to emergency incidents in their area of operation. Michael's previous assignment was as a Battery Commander in the 82nd Airborne Division at FT Bragg, NC. Michael can be reached at mleiva@tulane.edu


  1. “NWS Public Alerts in XML/CAP and ATOM Formats,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, Last Modified 26 June 2013, 29 July 2013 http://alerts.weather.gov/
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Presidential Documents; Executive Order 13407 Public Alert and Warning System,”[71] Federal Register [No. 124] (2006), 2
  4. Virginia Tech review Panel, Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech Report of the Review Panel, Accessed July 12, 2013, http://www.governor.virginia.gov/TempContent/techPanelReport-docs/7%20CHAPTER%20III%20TIMELINE%20OF%20EVENTS.pdf
  5. Virginia Tech review Panel, Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech Report of the Review Panel, Accessed July 12, 2013, http://www.governor.virginia.gov/TempContent/techPanelReport-docs/4%20SUMMARY%20OF%20KEY%20FINDINGS.pdf
  6. “VT Alerts,” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, last modified 2013, http://www.alerts.vt.edu/index.html