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Find Out Why Your Phone Will Get an Emergency Alert Wednesday Morning

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An illustration of a hand holding a cell phone with a red emergency logo above the device.
 (Johannes Bluemel Photography/iStock and Getty Images Plus)

Heads-up: On Wednesday morning, you’ll see — and hear — a loud test of the United States’ emergency alert system.

It’s because the system that’s meant to warn you in the event of a major disaster is being tested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And this means that a loud alert will be broadcast not just on radio and television, but also on your cellphone.

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Seeing the words “Emergency Alert” on your phone or the nearest TV screen can be jarring, even when the rest of the wording makes it clear that it’s only a test. And many people who lived in Hawaii in 2018 — and their families — still hold the traumatic memories of an Emergency Alert System alert sent to residents’ cellphones warning of an apparent imminent missile threat, in a false alarm accidentally triggered by one employee during a test.

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Many people are familiar with emergency test alerts appearing on broadcast platforms like television and radio, but potentially less familiar with how those alerts are tested on the cellphone they’re holding. So if you know of someone in your life that might be alarmed or panicked by this emergency alert test blaring on their cellphone — for example, an elder in your family who maybe isn’t super-comfortable using their cellphone — you might consider giving them a heads-up about Wednesday morning’s test and letting them know it’s nothing to be concerned about.

The message will also be in either English or Spanish depending on the language settings of a person’s cellphone. So if you know someone who doesn’t speak either of those languages, let them know about the test too.

And if you know a person who really won’t want to have their phone suddenly screeching loudly on Wednesday morning — perhaps someone living with PTSD, a person who works nights or a family with a young baby sleeping at home — you might want to send them this story as well.

When and where will the emergency alert test take place?

It’s actually two tests, really: one happening on broadcast (radio and television) and one that will come through to your cellphone. Keep reading for the specific details of the messages you’ll see or hear.

Both tests are scheduled to begin at around 2:20 p.m. ET — 11:20 a.m. PT here in California — Wednesday, Oct. 4.

For the broadcast tests, radio and television stations have a little flexibility about the exact timing of the emergency alert test. KQED Public Radio will be carrying the emergency alert test at 11 a.m. PT on Wednesday morning.

For the cellphone test, FEMA says that cell towers will “broadcast the test for approximately 30 minutes” starting around that time.

What will Wednesday’s emergency alert test look and sound like?

The first part of the test will happen on radio and television, and will be testing the government’s Emergency Alert System (EAS). FEMA says this will be the seventh EAS test that’s been conducted nationwide, so chances are good you’ve seen or heard one of these broadcast tests before, and that the emergency tone is familiar to you.

The second part of the test, which will happen around the same time, will be sent direct to your cellphone to test the government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). FEMA says this is only the second time WEA have been tested to all cellular devices.

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As for what people will see and hear on their phones, “it’s going to be the same sound that they hear for when they get an Amber Alert or another type of alert on their cellphone,” said Richard Rudman, chair of California’s State Emergency Communications Committee. The noise will be loud, and will come through even if your phone is silenced. The message will also be accompanied with vibration.

The text will be in either English or Spanish, depending on your phone’s language settings.

In English you’ll see the words “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

Phones with Spanish-language settings will show: “ESTA ES UNA PRUEBA del Sistema Nacional de Alerta de Emergencia. No se necesita acción.”

What should I do when I see or hear the test?

Nothing — as the test message will say, no action is needed from you.

Can I block the emergency alert? What if my phone is off at the time?

FEMA says that your cellphone needs to be “switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and in a geographic area where the wireless provider participates” in the Wireless Emergency Alerts system to be capable of receiving the emergency test message.

So if your phone is switched off, you won’t hear the emergency alert. Your phone also won’t receive the alert if it’s in Airplane Mode, according to the FCC.

What happens when you turn your phone back on? According to FEMA, “if a phone is off before the test alert is sent and not turned back on until after the WEA Test expires (approximately 30 minutes), the phone should not get the test message.”

What about blocking the alert? Your wireless carrier may offer you the option of blocking some Wireless Emergency Alerts — like Amber Alerts— in your phone settings, says FEMA. However, that doesn’t apply to National Alerts, which means that opting out of Wednesday’s test through your settings isn’t in fact possible. Plus, the FCC says that it “strongly urges” you to stay opted in to Wireless Emergency Alerts in general, “to receive all these life-saving messages.”

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Why is this emergency test happening?

“The cellphone WEA alerts are usually for local emergencies,” explains Rudman. “This is one of the first national tests being conducted for this particular type of test.”

The primary purpose of this test, said Rudman, is less about alerting every individual’s cellphone and more about “making sure all of the cellphone carriers are equipped properly.”

In other words, this is more directed at Verizon or AT&T than it is at you personally — testing whether those carriers will indeed be able to alert your cellphone in the event of a real disaster, whether it’s happening on a local or national scale.

Why would I potentially receive this kind of alert for real?

As unsettling as it can feel to imagine the scenarios in which you’d be seeing and hearing this kind of emergency message for real, these alerts are a key way of letting the public know what they need to do in the event of a disaster, said Rudman. And the list of potential disaster events, “as we’re finding out in an age where we have changing weather, and wildfires and other things are concerned, is kind of endless,” said Rudman.

Another reason these alerts are crucial: If a disaster is really unfolding, an emergency alert message won’t just tell you it’s happening. Instead it should tell you what you need to do to be safe, said Rudman.

“There may be a shelter in place order; there may be an immediate evacuation order; there may be an order to boil water because the water isn’t safe there, or a smoke cloud or a toxic gas cloud is coming,” he said.

These alerts are also meant to get residents to take the threat seriously, and heed the warnings.

“Human nature is such that it takes a little bit of reinforcement to get us motivated to stop what we’re doing,” said Rudman. When something really bad happens, he said, many people go into a state of denial about the scale of the disaster, and that this is really happening to them. These alerts are intended to “help break through that, and get people to take actions that help protect themselves,” he said.

In a disaster situation — for example, a fast-moving wildfire, a flood or storm, a tsunami or a terrorist attack — these emergency alerts on radio, television and cellphones would only be one part of a wider mix of alerting systems, said Rudman. For example, during wildfires in Northern California law enforcement have gone door-to-door to evacuate residents, or broadcast safety messages from the streets.

Cellphone service itself can also be severely disrupted during a disaster, as we’ve seen with recent wildfires in the wider Bay Area. In the event of a major emergency, local emergency managers “should use all the tools in their toolkit with the hopes that as many people as possible will get warnings,” said Rudman.

Wait, my phone didn’t get the emergency alert. What happened?

Remember that the emergency test to your cellphone is scheduled to begin around 11:20 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and it could take half an hour for the alert to come through.

But, said Rudman, “sometimes tests don’t always go well, and we uncover problems.” So if you don’t received the emergency alert test on Wednesday morning at all, he advises you let your cellphone carrier know.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

An earlier version of this story was published on Oct. 3 

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