FEMA just tested the US national emergency alert system – TechCrunch


FEMA will test its national emergency alert system later this week. Image credits: Getty Images

Did you hear that? FEMA has just completed its first national test of the US emergency alert system since the pandemic.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has tested both the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which broadcasts an emergency tone and message on televisions and radios, and emergency alerts. Wireless Emergency (WEA), a newer system that sends emergency notifications to smartphones. This was WEA’s second nationwide test after its debut in 2018, and the first test for all US cellphones from users who have opted in to receive test alerts.

The test began around 2:20 p.m. ET. If you chose to participate in the test, you likely received a message on your phone saying, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is necessary. (The FCC explains how to register to test alerts.)

For the first time, the WEA test sent the same test message in Spanish to phones with Spanish set as the default language.

This is what the WEA emergency alert test looks like. Image credits: WA emergency management (Opens in a new window)

Since the last nationwide test in 2019, FEMA said it has improved WEA to send longer, detailed messages to the majority of phones that support it. The update also allows authorities to include actionable links, such as web addresses.

FEMA performs these tests annually or every two years to make sure the system is working properly. This is no small feat: a national emergency alert system designed to deliver the same message to potentially hundreds of millions of people at any given time faces technological hurdles that require close cooperation from operators. mobile telephony and broadcast networks.

The EAS system has been around since the late 1990s, but WEA has been developed more recently as more Americans rely on their phones. WEA alerts, like EAS alerts, are designed to be sent by local and state authorities for public safety alerts, missing children, and imminent threats, such as severe weather. More recently, FEMA rolled out “Presidential Alerts,” which are supposed to be sent to every phone in the United States in the event of a national emergency. Presidential alerts, unlike other alerts, can be issued by the incumbent president for any reason, and Americans cannot back down.

WEA broadcasts emergency notifications through cell phone towers in an affected area – such as an area about to be hit by a storm – rather than sending tens of millions of text messages, which would cripple them. cellular networks. Alerts are created by local, state, or federal authorities and are authenticated by FEMA through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, and then transmitted to cellular carriers to issue the emergency alert.

The emergency alert system, however, is far from perfect. In 2018, a false alert sent to the people of Hawaii warned of an imminent threat of ballistic missiles “, and that” this is not an exercise “. A few minutes later, the alert was canceled. The false warning came as tensions between the United States and North Korea were at an all time high, during which Pyongyang regularly fired rockets used in its nuclear weapons program.

Security experts have also long warned that EAS systems present security risks. Last year, researchers discovered dozens of specialized Internet-connected servers used by television and radio stations to interrupt their broadcasts in order to relay an emergency alert, which they say could allow a hacker computer from breaking in and compromising the servers.

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