Open source and messaging's future
Last byte: A conversation with Art Botterell, national expert in warning systems and former FEMA official
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Nov 07, 2007
When Art Botterell was helping develop public warning systems
in California a decade ago, the state already had sirens
and broadcast TV messaging. So he and others began adding
telephones, weather radios and computers.
"Each time we added to the system, it got a lot more complex,"
said Botterell, a national expert in warning systems and former
Federal Emergency Management Agency official
who now is county warning system manager
for Contra Costa County, Calif.
He saw an urgent need for a common messaging
format that would be freely available
to all vendors and users. He helped organize
a grass-roots effort in 2000 and 2001 for
more than 100 computer programming volunteers
active in emergency management to
create an Extensible Markup Language format
for public warning messages. It was
named the Common Alerting Protocol, or
In 2004, the Organization for the
Advancement of Structured Information
Standards approved CAP, and since then, it
has been adopted as an official standard for
federal warning systems by FEMA, the
Federal Communications Commission, the
National Weather Service, and other federal,
state and local agencies.
Botterell spoke recently with Washington Technology staff
writer Alice Lipowicz about the role of grass-roots volunteerism,
innovation and open standards-based information technology
in homeland security and emergency communications.Q: How did the warning systems develop in Contra
We have about 1.2 million people, including
areas of expensive homes as well as incidents at the oil
refineries along the coast. The warning system has been
multimodal since the mid-1990s. It is all-hazards, fully
integrated and everything is automatic. It feeds into
sirens, weather radios, Emergency Alert System, telephone
notification, cable television and travelers' aid
For cell phone notifications, I just finished serving on
the Commercial Mobile Service Advisory Committee to
the FCC, as part of the Warn Act.Q: What was the inspiration for CAP?
What we found was that if you start with the
technology, you have to devise the message to fit the
technology. With CAP, we started with the social science
and the need for public warnings. We defined the characteristics
of an effective warning system and messaging
system and developed it from there to fit multiple
devices and formats.
An effective message has to hit you two to three times,
so it has to be multimodal. Most people will not evacuate
based on a solitary message.Q: Has CAP been a success?
Absolutely. It's a triumph
of the open-source
approach to solve a problem:
people just saying, "Let's do it!"
The CAP never would have happened
if we relied on the marketplace,
or on the government, as
neither was interested in creating
Now vendors are producing
technology they interpret as CAP compatible.
It may be just buzzword-
compliant, but at least they
are recognizing CAP as a feature
that communities want.Q: What do you think of FEMA's
adoption of CAP for the Integrated
Public Alert and Warning System
IPAWS seems to have
been shrunk so that instead of
being an umbrella system, it will
be a collection of products. The
problem I see is that the agenda is
being driven by vendors. The risk
is that we may end up with the
public warning system that is the
most profitable to build, rather
than the one that is most complete,
open and effective.
We need to have more competition.
The difficulty is that
there is not an enormous
amount of money to be made in
preparedness.Q: What is the most pressing
need in emergency warning
You can prepare for a
disaster with the National
Incident Management System
and the National Response
Framework, but the reality is
always messy and unpredictable.
There always will be chaos and
people who have not worked
together before. You need something
like a Google search engine
available to help officials quickly
identify all assets available for
response, regardless of the source.
That is the next frontier. We need
help with navigation, indexing
We constantly need innovation
to solve the really deep and interesting
problems. If we allow the
existing set of contractors to
define the space, they will define
it with solutions that they already
I hope that the CAP can serve
as an example of an alternative
way of doing things from the
grass-roots. Open-source computing
is a vital partner for developing
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.