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Where will you be at 1:18 p.m. on Wednesday?

Oct. 1, 2018

National Wireless Emergency Test Oct. 3 at 1:18 p.m. Phones will sound.

At 1:18 Wednesday afternoon, you’ll be sitting in a meeting (or at lunch, or in class, or walking the dog, or any one of a number of typical Wednesday afternoon activities) when your cell phone will begin to sound loudly and vibrate. So will the person’s next to you. And so will the person’s next to them. In fact, every cell phone in the nation will be doing this within half an hour.

How do we know this? No, we can’t predict the future (that would make our jobs in public safety much easier). We know this because that’s when Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has scheduled a bit of history: the first ever nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system.

You’re probably already familiar with Emergency Alert System (EAS) tests on your TV and radio – that’s when a tone sounds and an automated voice tells you it’s a test of the system. And in fact, there will be an EAS test starting two minutes later, at 1:20 p.m. Central time. The idea is to reach people through whatever technology they happen to be using, wherever they happen to be.

The WEA test will go through every cell tower in the nation. If your cell phone is switched on, you’ll receive a one-time message that says, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” No need to panic. FEMA just wants to make sure it works, so that when or if we ever need to use the WEA system, it will be ready to go.

And in what sorts of situations would we need it? A nationwide WEA is an alert issued by the President of the United States. To warrant one, there would be some sort of nationwide emergency. It’s much more likely to be used locally, for situations like dangerous weather and missing children cases such as Amber Alerts. Much like those events, your phone will likely startle you as it broadcasts a loud tone and vibrates during Wednesday’s test.

Keep in mind that, in this case, your cell phone will receive the alert if it’s on and within range of an active cell tower. If it’s switched off, let’s say during a flight, it will receive the message as soon as you turn it on, as long as it’s within the 30-minute test window. And because it’s a presidential alert, there’s no way to turn it off or opt out of it in your cell phone settings. That means that, if you’re in certain environments such as a hospital, school, or library, you’ll want to plan accordingly to avoid disruptions.

So when your cell phone lights up Wednesday afternoon, don’t worry – it’s planned! Hopefully you’ll never have the need for WEA in the future, but if you do, you’ll know what it is and that it works.