Every American’s Cellphone Will Sound An Alarm Wednesday. Here's Why.

The United States Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Communications Commission announced their joint plan to conduct a nationwide test of its Emergency Alert System (EAS) and its Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 2:20 p.m. ET.

The EAS test will apply to radios and televisions while the WEA test will affect cellphones. In an official press release, the Department of Homeland Security notes that the test will be postponed to Oct. 11 in the event of severe weather or other significant events.

The two government arms have been in contact with various wireless providers and other companies to properly prepare for the trial, which, according to the press release, is meant to “ensure that the systems continue to be effective means of warning the public about emergency, particularly those on the national level.” 

Most frequently, the alerts are used to disseminate weather-related information (about tornadoes and dangerous storms, for example), but the system is also responsible for blasting out Amber Alerts and what are referred to as Civil Emergency Messages, which regard in-progress or imminent significant threats to public safety (about terrorist attacks, for example).

So how, exactly, will the two tests affect the public at large? Here’s a breakdown.

What will happen to my cellphone during the test?

The following information applies to cellphones that are turned on at the appointed time and within range of an active cell tower, making use of a wireless provider that participates in these sorts of tests. Although most major phone providers participate in the program, you should check with yours directly if you’re not sure, as some providers may offer the service on some mobile devices and not others.

Around 2:20 p.m. ET, your cellphone’s alarm will likely go off with an accompanying text message that will read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” 

If your phone’s main menu is set in Spanish, the message on the display will be: “ESTA ES UNA PRUEBA del Sistema Nacional de Alerta de Emergencia. No se necesita acción.”

You’ll notice the alert will come along with a unique tone and vibration that you’ve likely not heard or felt from your device before, and that’s on purpose. In fact, as explained by the Department of Homeland Security, the distinctive features are meant to ensure that the entire public, including people with disabilities, are aware of the trial taking place.

The unpleasantness of the sound is also meant to capture everyone’s attention.

Americans are scheduled to receive the alert once throughout the 30 minutes that the various cell towers will be broadcasting the test. Once you do receive it, you can’t turn it off — you have to let the minute pass by.

As mentioned in the message, you are not expected to take any sort of action following the broadcast.

What will happen to my television and radio during the test?

All radios and televisions that are turned on around 2:20 p.m. ET on Wednesday will also display an emergency test alert that will read: “This is a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covering the United States from 14:20 to 14:50 hours ET. This is only a test. No action is required by the public.”

The alert will go off for about a minute across participating radio and TV broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio and TV providers, and wireline video providers.

Once again, you are not expected to take any action in response to the broadcast.

Has this test ever been conducted before?

Yes. This isn’t the first time the government has tested our emergency system.

As a matter of fact, Wednesday’s EAS test will be the seventh ever since the first one that was conducted back in 2011. As for the WEA, this will be the second one ever to be sent out to consumer cellphones. You probably remember the most recent two-system trial, which happened in 2021.

Why are these tests even happening?

To put it simply, the EAS was established in 1997 to allow the president of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, to address all Americans within 10 minutes of an emergency. 

Interestingly enough, the first project of this kind was actually the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation (CONELRAD). Back in 1951, the emergency broadcast system would send an alert via radio to warn Americans about a potential Soviet-related nuclear explosion. However, in the following decade, the system proved ineffective as the newly developed Soviet missiles would intercept the radio waves before the messages were sent out.

Fast-forward to the late ’90s and the EAS was created. And with the more recent addition of WEA mobile alerts, the government has found an efficient way to grab everyone’s attention given our collective obsession with mobile devices.