What was just an idea on the drawing boards just a few years ago is becoming nearly a routine for broadcasters. The Federal Emergency Management has proposed Sept. 20 at 2:18pm ET as the date and time for the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. After conducting a first-ever national EAS test in 2011, the 2018 test would be a fourth dry run of an infrastructure designed to allow a President to speak to the country in case of a national emergency.
In a new ripple this year, FEMA is proposing a simultaneous first-ever national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert or WEA. It would involve sending an 87-character test message to be displayed on mobile handsets. “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed,” the text message would read.
Since wireless emergency alert capabilities launched in 2012, there have been numerous tests of the system targeting specific geographical locations. But this would be the first time a WEA alert is distributed across the entire country and to overseas U.S. territories. A backup date for both tests would be Oct. 3.
In a letter disclosing the plan to the Federal Communications Commission, Alfred Kenyon, chief of the customer support branch in FEMA’s IPAWS Program Office, wrote, “This test is necessary because it will determine if carrier WEA configuration, systems and networks can and will process a Presidential WEA delivering the message via all WEA-enabled cell sites with minimal latency. Public safety officials need to be sure that in times of an emergency or disaster, they have methods and systems that will deliver urgent alerts and warnings to the public when needed.”
Kenyon continued, “Periodic testing of public alert and warning systems is a way to assess the operational readiness of the infrastructure for distribution of a national message and determine what technological improvements need to be made.”
According to federal officials, since the WEA system launched six years ago it has been used more than 33,000 times to warn the public on their cell phones about dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations.
In January the FCC gave wireless carriers until November 2019 to improve their technology to fine-tune how alerts are sent. Rather than blanketing a wide geographic footprint, the updates would require alerts to zoom in on a specific area. Even sooner, by May 2019, the FCC is requiring carriers to offer alerts up to 360 characters with capabilities to send Spanish-language warnings. Kenyon said that because this fall’s test would use the presidential-level activation code, it would not test either of those mandated changes. Instead, he said it would help to “assess the effectiveness of WEA message delivery overall.”
Plans call for a less formal approach to assessing how the wireless test performs. While broadcasters are required to submit a pair of reports to the FCC detailing whether they received and then relayed an EAS message, Kenyon said FEMA and Department of Homeland Security employees throughout the country will be asked to fill out a brief questionnaire to provide a “snapshot” of the wireless alert’s delivery.
‘This Is A Test’
The two-pronged test of both EAS and WEA would also be acknowledged in the alert that’s relayed by radio, television and cable systems nationwide. The proposed new message would say: “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. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones in the nation. Some cell phones will receive the message. Others will not. No action is required.”
Kenyon said if the FCC goes along with the plan, FEMA will develop multimedia public service announcements to begin educating the public about the new broadcast-wireless combination test set to take place in September.
During the 2017 national EAS test, 97.3% of radio stations successfully received the test message and 94% successfully retransmitted the alert, according to FEMA and the FCC. That was a higher success rate than either television or cable. The report pointed to “fewer complications” related to EAS equipment failures as one reason. The biggest issue by far was audio quality, with problems including background noise, static, distortion, echoing, low volume and slow audio playback cited by many stations. Other glitches were more run of the mill, such as stations that failed to update their EAS equipment software or those that incorrectly configured EAS hardware.
Read the FEMA/FCC report HERE.