Cellphones will vibrate, radios will beep, and televisions will scroll special messages on Wednesday as the United States tests its Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, also known as IPAWS. The Integrated Public Alert & Warning System is FEMA’s national system for local alerting that provides authenticated emergency and life-saving information to the public through mobile phones using Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), to radio and television via the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Weather Radio. The test is set for 2:20 pm ET, 1:20pm CT, 12:20 pm MT, 11:20 am PT, 10:20 am AT, and 8:20 am HT; it’ll be held at the same time across the country.
Cellphone users will get a test message in English or Spanish depending on the default language settings of the phone. The one-time message will say, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed,” or “ESTA ES UNA PRUEBA del Sistema Nacional de Alerta de Emergencia. No se necesita acción.”
During this time, WEA compatible cell 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. Some cell phones will not receive the test message, and cell phones should only receive the message once.
While cellphones get the WEA, televisions and radios will receive the EAS. Lasting for about one minute, listeners and viewers will hear or see this message: “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 Commission, 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. No action is required.”
Some people may have opted-out of these special alerts. In 2018 FEMA conducted the first nationwide WEA test by sending a WEA message to every active WEA compatible wireless device in the country using the “Presidential Alert” capability designed into WEA. Since that time several new capabilities have been incorporated into WEA architecture including the ability to send test messages that are only displayed on wireless handsets where subscribers have “opted-in” to receive those test messages. This year, FEMA plans to use that capability to test WEA on a nationwide basis without disturbing the public.
Five types of message alerts can be sent through WEA: “Imminent Threat” messages warning of extreme weather and other threatening emergencies in an area, “Public Safety” messages, “AMBER alerts”, “WEA test messages”, and “Presidential Alerts” for a national emergency. In 2018, President Trump issued the first test Presidential Alert; none have been issued since.
FEMA takes these tests seriously. In 2019, the FCC fined comedian Jimmy Kimmel $395,000 for mocking an emergency alert during his late night show. AMC paid a $104,000 fine for including an emergency alert tone used in an episode of the series, “The Walking Dead”, while Discovery had to pay $68,000 for rebroadcasting a real emergency alert inside its “Lone Star Law” show on Animal Planet.