First nationwide test for cellphones planned

Staff Report

    At precisely 1:18 p.m. central time on Thursday, Sept. 20, cell phones across the nation will sound an alert, representing the first time mobile devices will be included in a test of the national emergency alert system.
    The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert (EAS) and the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) systems to ensure public safety officials have the methods and systems that will deliver urgent alerts and warnings to the public in times of an emergency or disaster.
    The WEA will be followed at 1:20 p.m. by the Emergency Alert System portion of the test.
    This will be the fourth nationwide test of the EAS, following operations in September 2011, 2016 and 2017, during National Preparedness Month.
    The EAS test will last approximately one minute and will involve radio, television, cable, satellite radio and television and wireline video providers.
    The test message will be similar to that broadcast during the regular monthly test of the emergency alert systems that we’re all familiar with, but will include a reference to the WEA test: “This is a test of the National Emergency Alert System ... 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 cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message, others will not. No action is required.”
    The WEA message will read “This is a test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
    The WEA system, which has been available since 2012, is used to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children and other critical situations through alerts on cell phones. It allows customers whose wireless provider participates in WEA and who own a WEA compatible wireless phone to receive geo-targeted alerts of imminent threats to safety in their area through unique tones and vibration. The national WEA test will use the same special tone heard on the monthly EAS test.
    The WEA test will be sent through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, part of the alert and warning infrastructure that automatically authenticates alerts. Cell towers will broadcast the WEA test for approximately 30 minutes. During this time, cell phones that are switched on and within range of an active cell tower should be capable of receiving the test message. Cell phones should receive the message once.
    What you need to know about WEAs:
    • WEAs can be sent by state and local public safety officials, the National Weather Service, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the President of the United States.
    • WEAs can be issued for three alert categories — imminent threat, Amber and presidential.
    • WEAs look like text messages, but are designed to get your attention and alert you with a unique sound and vibration, both repeated twice.
    • WEAs are no more than 90 characters, and will include the type and time of the alert, any action you should take and the agency issuing the alert.
    • WEAs are not affected by network congestion and will not disrupt texts, calls or data sessions that are in progress.
    • Mobile users are not charged for receiving WEAs and there is no need to subscribe.
    • This is not the same service public safety agencies may have asked you to register for, but is complementary. You can sign up for alerts from local agencies such as the Will and Grundy county emergency service agencies, and receive telephone calls, text messages or emails from them. Those messages often include specific details about a critical event. WEAs are short messages designed to get your attention in a critical situation and may not give all the details you receive from other notification services.
    Download Grundy County EMA, or Ready Will County from the Play Store or App Store to register for their alerts.
    • If your mobile device is WEA-capable, you will receive alerts when traveling or away from home that are specific to the area you’re visiting, even if you arrive after the alert is first sent.
    Mobile users may need to check with their service provider to ensure their device is WEA capable. We tested two phones in the Free Press office, a Samsung S9 and an iPhone. To turn on alerts on the Samsung, we went to settings and clicked on apps. We selected Messages, the active messaging app, and then hit the settings icon, which brought up a menu that included emergency alert settings.
    The iPhone was a little simpler, we launched the settings app, tapped on notification center and scrolled all the way to the bottom to find a toggle for Amber alerts and government alert options.
    Those who don’t have a WEA-capable device can still receive alerts from NOAA Weather Radio, news broadcasts, the Emergency Alert System on radio and television, outdoor sirens, internet services and other methods used by local and state public safety agencies.
    Oct. 3 is the secondary date for the test. If conditions in any part of the country preclude testing on the primary test date, such as severe weather moving through a region, the secondary date will be used.