Emergency Alert Test in October Will Sound Alarms On US Cellphones, TVs, and Radios
When fast-moving flames erupted on August 8 in Lahaina, Maui, residents claimed they had little to no time to flee since none of the warning sirens went off. As a result, many Lahaina residents lost their homes, and more than 100 people lost their lives.
In the wake of the devastating Lahaina wildfire, which has gone on record as one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history, federal officials plan to conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).
On Wednesday, October 4, Americans can expect to hear emergency warning sounds on their televisions, radios, and cell phones. Federal officials said the purpose of the test is to make sure the systems continue to be an effective means of warning the public about national emergencies through multiple communication networks.
FEMA and the FCC are coordinating the nationwide testing with wireless telephone providers, television stations, radio broadcasters, emergency managers, and others to minimize confusion and maximize the public safety value of the test.
The testing will start at approximately 2:20 p.m. ET across every time zone in the United States. This means the alerts will go off at:
• 2:20 p.m. Eastern time
• 1:20 p.m. Central time
• 12:20 p.m. Mountain time
• 11:20 a.m. on the West Coast
• 10:20 a.m. in Alaska
• 8:20 a.m. in Hawaii
The testing will interrupt television shows and radio programming, and phones will get a warning message in either English or Spanish, depending on the device’s language settings.
National Emergency Test Details
The national test will consist of two parts: The WEA portion for wireless phones and the EAS portion for radio, television, cable, and other media.
According to FEMA, the following can be expected from the nationwide test:
1. The WEA Test
Beginning at approximately 2:20 p.m. ET, cell towers will broadcast the test for approximately 30 minutes. During this time, WEA-compatible wireless phones that are switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA should be capable of receiving the test message.
The message that appears on the 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.
2. The EAS Test
The EAS portion of the test will last about one minute and will be conducted via participating radio and television broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio, television providers, and wireline video providers.
The test message will be similar to the regular monthly EAS test messages with which the public is familiar. It will state: “This is a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covering the United States from 2:20 to 2:50 hours ET. This is only a test. No action is required by the public.
National Emergency Tests Have Been Conducted in the Past
This will be the third nationwide test, but the second test for all cellular devices. The first-ever test of the most recent version of the EAS occurred at 2 p.m. ET on November 9, 2011, and exposed a number of problems.
In its report about the lessons learned from that test, FEMA discovered that some television and radio stations received the emergency alert notification but had equipment problems preventing them from broadcasting it to their viewers or listeners. In addition, the report stated that there was widespread poor audio quality nationwide, which, in some cases, duplicated messages or muted the audio test message.
According to ABC News, one AM radio station in Birmingham, Ala., reported the entire area had problems with the alert, which did not air on radio or TV stations in their market. Some DirecTV subscribers reported seeing Lady Gaga sing “Paparazzi” when the test was underway.
So, if there were a national emergency, people in certain parts of the country would not have received a warning message. However, by learning about these problems, federal emergency officials were able to strengthen and improve the system.
State, Local Communities Also Use Emergency Warning Systems
Besides the national emergency systems, communities nationwide have their own systems to notify residents of an emergency. For example, local communities conduct monthly tests of outdoor emergency sirens that are used to notify the public of severe weather conditions, Amber Alerts, and other emergencies.
Besides interrupting regular radio and television programming, states and local communities also post messages on highway and freeway signs, billboards, and other places.
Since the emergency system started in the 1950s, there have been mistaken messages that have led to false alerts. The most recent false alert happened in Hawaii in 2018 when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accidentally sent a notice warning of a ballistic missile danger to the Islands.
The message read, “Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound To Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This Is Not A Drill.” Some state highway signs also noted the warning. It took 38 minutes to clarify that the alert was due to someone selecting the wrong item on a computer during a shift change.
In any event, the October 4th message will only go out once. There will be no repeats. In case the October 4th test is postponed due to widespread severe weather or other significant events, the backup testing date is October 11.