The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has proposed September 20, 2018 at 2:18 p.m. Eastern 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.
New this year, FEMA is proposing a simultaneous first-ever national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (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.
Alfred Kenyon, chief of the customer support branch in FEMA’s IPAWS Program Office, wrote in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission stating, “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.”
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.
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.
The FEMA/FCC report is available here.