August 10, 2021

Heads Up: The Feds Will Conduct A Nationwide Emergency Alert Test On Wednesday


The federal government will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Wednesday, August 11, at 2:20 PM EDT. The test will cover television, radio, and most smartphones. The backup date is the same time on Wednesday, August 25.

This nationwide EAS test is part of a larger effort to make sure systems are working properly in case some nonsense goes down one day.

The EAS is rooted in the cold war worriedness of the 1950s, originally implemented so the president could quickly address the nation in the event of a nuclear war or an imminent military invasion somewhere on our soil.

Today's EAS is a complex network that can be activated at the local level for tornado warnings, wildfire evacuations, 911 telephone outages, and even the stay-at-home orders we saw at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Complex networks need testing, and that's especially true of a national-level system where there are hundreds of potential points of failure between activation and your device.


Wednesday's test will be the sixth nationwide practice run for the EAS in the past decade, including tests in 2011, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Last year's test was scrapped due to the pandemic.

Several high-profile EAS failures have occurred over the years, including a glitchy first nationwide test in 2011, a false missile alert sent out in Hawaii in 2018, and an accidental tornado warning sent to everyone in Kansas and Missouri earlier this year.

The effort to conduct these tests on a nationwide level is part of the alert system's original goal of allowing the president to quickly address the nation in the event of a significant emergency.


Realistically, the need for a presidential EAS activation is redundant because of social media and the near-instantaneous nature of news reporting. We'd get a breaking news alert about a nuclear war or intergalactic invasion long before the president's aides could get A/V equipment into the Oval Office.

Even during the 9/11 attacks, perhaps the singular event in modern history where this system may have been necessary, those in charge decided not to use it because news reports and footage of the attacks were almost immediately picked up around the country.

This test is a great opportunity to check your smartphone and make sure wireless emergency alerts are activated for tornado warnings. You can't disable them for presidential alerts, but many people do disable them for weather emergencies.

Wireless emergency alerts are proven lifesavers. You don't want to get caught in a tornado-warned storm and not hear the warning. It's one of the easiest ways to stay safe.

If you notice any hiccups during the test—garbled audio, wrong message, didn't work at all—you can report that info to the FCC to help them work out the glitches.

And please, for cryin' out loud, don't buy into political conspiracy theories about this annual test.

***

(P.S.: You know that horrible screeching noise that makes the EAS so grating?

Those screeches serve a similar purpose to the iconic sound of dialup modems. We're hearing encoded data that automatically activates the alert process and disseminates information about the alert. I wrote about it at The Vane back in the day.

This is also why the FCC will slam broadcasters with five-figure fines for using EAS tones as sound effects, since they can actually activate a false alert.)

[Top image via the FCC]


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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