March 2, 2021

Today's Accidental Tornado Warning Is Exactly Why Officials Test Emergency Alerts So Often

Millions of people received a seemingly real tornado warning on their phones Tuesday morning during annual statewide tornado drills in Kansas and Missouri. The push alerts made no mention of the fact that it was a drill, causing widespread confusion on an otherwise clear and sunny day. The giant flub highlights exactly why officials test these emergency alerts in the first place.

The errant warning coincided with statewide tornado drills, a day devoted to making sure everyone and everything is prepared to handle the threat for tornadoes during the impending peak of severe weather season. Alerts issued during drills are clearly marked as drills so they don't freak people out.

The National Weather Service office in Wichita, Kansas, posted a screenshot on Twitter proving that the agency handled the test correctly on their end, reporting later in the day "that new software implemented last week mistakenly allowed the test to go out as an actual warning."

Incidents like Tuesday's accidental false alarm are exactly why local, state, and national agencies test these systems on a routine basis. With so many different points of failure possible between the alert's issuance and your screens, these systems need to be tested frequently to make sure they work. After all, if the system fails, you might not see a message about a tornado warning or any other dangers they can warn us about.

A Wireless Emergency Alert I received on my phone for a tornado warning on October 11, 2018.

These systems are surprisingly complex. The iconic screeches and pops that make the EAS so recognizable on television and radio are actually coded messages that are similar in purpose to the sound of a dial-up modem. Specially designed devices at television stations and cable providers listen for the sound of the EAS and interpret the message embedded within to know what kind of alert was issued and which communities need to see the alert.

Wireless alerts sent to smartphones are decidedly less entertaining—it's all computerized, and the recognizable screeching sound you hear is just an audio file on your device—but there are still multiple steps and multiple potential points of failure between the point of issuance and your screen.

While the greatest concern is the system failing altogether, we've seen plenty of incidents like today where a test accidentally reaches the public as if it was a real alert.

Back in 2018, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency improperly ran a drill that resulted in an erroneous "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII" message popping up on every smartphone in the state. The message was particularly stress-inducing due to the boiling tensions between the U.S. and North Korea at the time.

An employee in Connecticut's emergency management office entered the wrong code into the system ahead of a statewide test of the Emergency Alert System in February 2005, sending out an emergency alert on television and radio that told everyone to evacuate the state.

NORAD accidentally sent out a live code used to authenticate a real emergency message during a scheduled test in February 1971, causing at least one station—WOWO-FM in Fort Wayne, Indiana—to suspend programming and operate as if the Emergency Broadcast System had been activated for a national emergency. Audio of the false alarm is well-preserved on YouTube as the announcer stalled for time while the station sought more information.

[Top ImageStormless skies over the Midwest on March 2, 2021/NOAA]

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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 contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.