October 2, 2018 - 1:10 pm
By Lisa M. Fowlkes | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

“This is only a test.”

You’ve no doubt heard or read those words countless times during local tests of the Emergency Alert System, accompanied by the familiar attention-grabbing sounds on your television or radio. Testing is an essential part of ensuring that emergency alert systems work, both by validating operational readiness and by uncovering areas for improvement.  While local tests of the Emergency Alert System occur frequently, the system has also been tested three times on the national level.  Tomorrow, October 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in coordination with the FCC, will conduct the fourth national test of the Emergency Alert System.    Two minutes prior to the Emergency Alert System test, FEMA will also initiate the first national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.  

Both test messages will be transmitted over FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), a central gateway that is used to transmit alerts from government agencies to the public.  Both messages will state that they are only tests.

As with past national Emergency Alert System tests, EAS participants—the radio and television broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio and television providers, and wireline video providers that deliver the alerts to the public—are required to report to the FCC how the test fared.  We then analyze the results and work with stakeholders, including industry and FEMA, to strengthen the system.

In addition, while members of the public certainly do not need to take any action, we welcome feedback on your experience with the Wireless Emergency Alert test.  We also plan to engage with FEMA and wireless providers to learn more about how the wireless test performed.

Making State and Local Testing Easier

To be clear, Wireless Emergency Alert testing is not new.  Participating wireless providers are already required to support certain monthly tests, which check their network connections to FEMA’s IPAWS alerting gateway.  But unlike those tests, which are typically unseen by consumers, the upcoming nationwide test will reach the general public—that is, people whose wireless carrier participates in the Wireless Emergency Alert program and who have a compatible handset that is turned on and receiving service in an area where the program is supported. 

In addition, beginning on May 1, 2019, state and local emergency managers will be able to conduct their own end-to-end Wireless Emergency Alert tests to assess how the service is working within their jurisdictions.  This timeframe enables industry to develop a means for consumers to opt-in to the tests, so that those who do not wish to participate do not receive test messages.  In the meantime, state and local governments must seek a waiver from the FCC to conduct end-to-end tests.  We’ve already granted several waivers.  And, based in part on the press accounts of these local tests, we are seeking comment on issues related to the delivery of Wireless Emergency Alerts to the public.  This is part of our ongoing effort to strengthen wireless alerting.

The FCC also recently took action to support more effective local tests of the Emergency Alert System, including adopting procedures for state and local officials to conduct “live code” tests.  These tests, which use the same alert codes and processes as would be used in actual emergencies, can increase the proficiency of local alerting officials while educating the public about how to respond to actual alerts.  The procedures require appropriate coordination, planning, and disclaimers to accompany any “live code” tests.  

Speaking of resources to increase alert originator proficiency, here is a reminder that FEMA maintains an IPAWS Lab where alerting authorities can regularly practice and train.  The Lab provides a closed IPAWS testing environment along with representative cell phone, radio, and television devices, which enable authorities to safely see how their alerts would appear to the public on a wireless device or television screen. 

Lessons Learned

Another way we continue to improve emergency alerting is by sharing lessons learned.  Earlier this year, the FCC convened a wide range of stakeholders—including state and local emergency managers, public safety officials, federal agency representatives, and industry members—to discuss best practices related to emergency alert testing and proficiency training.  Among the key takeaways from the roundtable, there was agreement that alert originators should establish standard operating procedures and conduct training to ensure staff are able to use the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts during emergencies, but also to practice how to effectively use social media.  For example, social media can be a valuable tool for communicating with non-English-speaking audiences.  It’s important to understand the capabilities and limitations of all alerting tools when developing a comprehensive alerting plan to meet your community’s needs.

We look forward to continuing the dialogue with stakeholders as we work together to keep strengthening the nation’s emergency alerting systems.