A nationwide test of emergency alerts using the presidential-level code, which is reserved for serious public perils such as an attack on the U.S., will be conducted tomorrow at 2:18 p.m. EDT via mobile phones and at 2:20 p.m. EDT via television and radio. While presidential alert messages have been sent to televisions and radios through broadcast, cable, satellite, and wireless video providers for the past three years, this is the first time that the message will also be sent to mobile phones.
Data is being collected and shared to evaluate the test results, but no data is being collected from wireless carriers about individual customers, a senior FCC official said during a conference call with reporters today. As a result, she said, individuals should not have any privacy concerns.
The wireless emergency alerts (WEA) are expected to reach 75% of all mobile phones, or about 225 million devices, according to a senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the test with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Weather Service.
While wireless carriers are not legally obligated to participate, all the major carriers have agreed to transmit the message, the official said. The message will not be sent to landlines.
The expected failure of the message to reach 25% of mobile phones is attributed to one or more of the following causes: (1) the device has configuration issues preventing the display of the message; (2) the user is on the phone, and the message will not interrupt an ongoing call; or (3) a data session is running, and the message will not interrupt an ongoing data session.
When a call or data session is in progress, the message will be delivered and waiting for the user to access it, in the same way that a text message is delivered without interrupting a call or data session.
A mobile phone user can adjust the phone’s settings to block the two lower-level alerts, imminent alerts and Amber alerts, but users cannot block a presidential alert. A senior FEMA official on the call urged mobile phone users not to opt out of the lower two categories, even though they have that right, because those warnings provide potentially life-saving information.
Any enabled device, including tablets and smart watches, should also receive the message. To ensure disabled users are aware of the message, the WEA alert will be accompanied by a unique tone and vibration.
The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law in April 2016, requires that the presidential alert be tested at least once every three years. The imminent-level alerts and the Amber alerts are used to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children, and other more localized situations; the presidential alert is reserved for events such as an attack on the U.S.
During tomorrow’s test, mobile phones will display the header “Presidential Alert.” The WEA message will read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” The test will last for 30 minutes, which means that FEMA will continue to send the message to mobile phones for 30 minutes. Each phone should receive only one message.
Although the test message will be generated from a testing lab, a real message would be sent from a secure location by operators in touch with interagency representatives. The message is secure, password-protected, and must be checked by two people before it is sent. Thus, although the message is referred to as a presidential alert, the president would not determine the content or send the message himself, although he would direct that it be issued. The actual content of the message is pre-drafted and with sign-off by various agencies to address various emergencies. Before sending the message, the operators would fill in the blanks to provide more specific information.
The distribution of the message to televisions and radios through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is expected to last about one minute. Its message, familiar to most, will state: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System. This system was developed by broadcast and cable operators in voluntary cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications, and local authorities to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, an official message would have followed the tone alert you heard at the start of this message. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message; others will not. No action is required.” The message will be broadcast in both English and Spanish, with the participating company deciding which to use. —Robert B. Barnett Jr., J.D.