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Nationwide Emergency Alert to Be Tested

FEMA test message will go out through cellphones, TV and radio October 4


spinner image a national alet displays on a smartphone in front of the us capitol building's dome
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If you have a mobile device, don’t be alarmed when you and everyone you know get an emergency alert on Wednesday, Oct. 4. The federal government plans to conduct a nationwide test of the system, that will be directed to all consumer cellphones. At the same time, an emergency test alert will be sent out via radio and television.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is conducting the test, in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to make sure the systems “continue to be effective means of warning the public about emergencies, particularly those on the national level,” according to an agency press release. The last nationwide test of the system occurred on Aug. 11, 2021.

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What to expect

  • On Oct. 4, FEMA will activate its warning system. At around 2:30 p.m. ET, a wireless emergency alert will begin to be transmitted from cell towers across the nation, lasting for about a half hour.
  • During that time, most cellphones across the country should receive the alert if they are turned on and come within range of an active tower. Such short emergency messages that warn the public of an impending natural or human-made disaster can be sent to mobile devices without the need to download an app or subscribe to a service.
  • Your cellphone should receive the message only once even though it is being sent out repeatedly for the half-hour test period.
  • For consumers, the message that appears on their phones will read: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
  • Phones with the main menu set to Spanish will display: “ESTA ES UNA PRUEBA del Sistema Nacional de Alerta de Emergencia. No se necesita acción.”

The test alert sent to radios and televisions is scheduled to last approximately one minute. The test message should be familiar to most Americans: “This is a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covering the United States from 14:20 to 14:50 hours ET. This is only a test. No action is required by the public.”

In case the Oct. 4 test is postponed due to widespread severe weather or other significant events, the backup testing date is Wednesday, Oct. 11.

History of the emergency alert system

As communications technologies have evolved, so, too, have the federal government’s emergency alert systems — starting with radio in the 1950s, then television and eventually other media, including cellphones and even electronic billboards. Today, the goal is for the White House to be able to address the public within 10 minutes during a national emergency.

The latest modernization effort came from lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A post-Katrina congressional report recommended that in the future, all levels of government “must have the means to communicate essential and accurate emergency information to the public prior to, during and after a catastrophe.”

FEMA launched the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) in 2012 to establish a single notification system that public safety agencies could utilize to send alerts to cellphones, radios and TVs during natural disasters or other emergencies. Moreover, the messages can be distributed to specific geographic or regional areas with tailored alerts.

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2020 noting that progress has been made in expanding access to IPAWS. “As of September 2019, more than 1,400 alerting authorities had access to IPAWS, up from fewer than 100 authorities in 2013. All states have at least one state alerting authority, but gaps in local authority access remain that could limit the timeliness of alerts as emergencies occur at the local level,” GAO wrote at the time.

False alarm

In January 2018, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency erroneously issued an emergency alert of an incoming ballistic missile attack to cellphones across the state while it was conducting an internal exercise of its ballistic missile defense system. It was another 38 minutes before the mistaken text — BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL — was revoked.

An FCC investigation found “a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to the transmission” and that “neither the false alert nor the 38-minute delay to correct the false alert would have occurred had Hawaii implemented reasonable safeguards and protocols before Jan. 13, 2018.”

The FCC noted that Hawaii had since taken steps to ensure a similar false alert would be avoided. FEMA has also adopted changes to ensure that when the system is being tested, the public is made abundantly clear that it is only a test.

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