Building A Public Warning Service To Handle Emergencies

Public Warning Service (PWS) are systems that government and public authorities use to alert the public (residents and visitors) of imminent and developing major emergencies and disasters.

Governments need to send trusted, accurate and reliable information regularly during an emergency such as a pandemic or natural disaster or political unrest. This has never been more important since false information can circulate via social media in a matter of hours. 

Public Warning Service (PWS) are systems that government and public authorities use to alert the public (residents and visitors) of imminent and developing major emergencies and disasters. 

The Structure of PWS  

The modern PWS is comprised of a back end and front end.  

On the one hand, the back end is the technology and equipment installed within the telecommunication providers’ infrastructure to enable direct messages and alerts to residents and visitors. Previously done with traditional PWS (sirens, radio, TV), modern PWS can send alerts directly to mobile phones based on geographical locations. This can be achieved by either sending messages through SMS either in Cell Broadcast or Location-based mode.  


On the other hand, the public alerting front-end consists of the consoles (user interfaces), messaging gateways, and orchestration logic which public authorities use to compose messages, select communication channels, and send alerts to the maximum number of people in a geo-targeted area ranging in size from a localized residential area, city, or state, to an entire country.  

Building PWS Inhouse  

In-house software development or DIY refers to the choice made by an organization to manage the entire creation process using in-house resources or a third-party vendor like a system integrator or technology services company. In this case, governments or public authorities accept the massive development challenge and the cost of hosting, supporting, and maintaining the system. Often, the complexity of building a front end is underestimated. 

National public agencies responsible for public safety, civil defence, and crisis management assemble internally or sub-contract a team comprised of software architects, a developer, mobile app developers, database administrators and at least one User Experience (UX) designer who ideally has experience and expertise in telecommunication technology and equipment, GIS mapping, APIs, and overall integration.  

Along with the developers, team members from quality assurance, security information, project management, and DevOps resources will also be required to conduct the project to completion.  

Integrating the front end with the back ends

The front end integrates with all and any types of back-end technologies (cell broadcast, location-based SMS, or a combination) that are hosted with the telecom operators’ networks. This is a development project which will require specific technical skills, where experience in integrating with generic APIs is not enough.  

You will need to work with software engineers who understand the technological possibilities and limitations on the “inside” of the telecom networks, specifically all the bits and pieces needed to send alerts to a specific geographic area. This also includes the ability to send messages to certain base stations, and therefore understand the differences between cell broadcast technology versus SMS, among other considerations.  

Besides text and/or SMS, will authorities want to transmit alerts via additional channels? For instance, is a mobile app push notification a requirement? Again, this would be yet another development project which would require human and technical resources for design, development, hosting, support, maintenance, and a budget to cover it all.  

The Alternative Approach to Building Inhouse  

The alternative is to remove development risk by partnering with a company that has already built government solutions for public warning and has years of experience helping countries respond to the most catastrophic events and pandemics. There are several Public Warning solutions available out there with different deployment options, such as:  

  • Modular approaches offering the front-end alerting gateway only, a specific type of back end only, or both front end and back end components,  

  • Basic solutions, or more sophisticated combinations of capabilities,  

  • A single product, or a platform that can be expanded to include many communication channels.  

There is therefore a large and customizable variety of solutions to choose from which address the current and future needs of member states. Because these systems come “pre-integrated” and ready-to-use, there is no need to spend extra time or resources building the different components and maintaining the system for years to come. Most likely, the systems are proven and have already been used by other countries before, during, and after critical events.  

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