Oct 4, 2023 - Technology

Don't panic: The emergency alert sent to your phone was just a test

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

That was just a drill. The blaring alarm you received on your cellphone around 2:20pm ET today was a test of the national wireless emergency alert system.

Why it matters: It was conducted to make sure systems are effective in warning the public of emergencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission said.

  • The system is used to warn about dangerous weather, missing children and other "critical situations," per the FCC.
  • The wireless emergency alerts system has been used more than 84,000 times since its 2012 launch.

National emergency alert test time by time zone

The test was set to begin at approximately 2:20pm ET on Oct. 4 and "cell towers will broadcast the test for approximately 30 minutes," according to a news release.

  • Eastern time: 2:20pm
  • Central time: 1:20pm
  • Mountain time: 12:20pm
  • Pacific time: 11:20am
  • Alaska standard time: 10:20am
  • Hawaii-Aleutian time: 8:20am

Emergency test spreads conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories and claims about the test have been spreading online and revived debunked theories about the contents of the COVID-19 vaccine, the AP reports.

  • One claim spreading is that the test will signal phones in order to activate nanoparticles such as graphene oxide that have been introduced into people's bodies.

Reality check: Jeremy Edwards, FEMA's spokesperson, told the AP that similar tests have happened for years without any reports of adverse health effects from the system signals.

"This is a test" message

The test message is displayed in either English or Spanish, depending on the language settings of the wireless handset.

  • The message appearing on the phones reads: "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."
  • The alert is sent to phones that are "switched on, within range of an active cell tower."

FEMA emergency alert sound

The alert was accompanied by "a unique attention signal and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities," the FCC explains.

  • If you're on a phone call at the time of the alert test, the message and tone will be delayed until you hang up, FEMA said.
  • Even phones set to silent will get the alert unless they are off.

Cellphones can't block national alerts

Zoom in: Those who have alerts turned off for other warnings like Amber alerts still get the FEMA notification, the FCC said.

  • That's because national alerts, which are issued by the president or the FEMA administrator, cannot be blocked.
  • Some older phones do not receive the alerts.

Yes, but: To get the test message on Wednesday, your device must be on and cannot be in airplane mode.

  • A senior FEMA official recommended people with secret phones, such as survivors of domestic violence, turn off phones completely, CNN reported.

TVs, radios also part of FCC emergency test

Wednesday's test was also sent to radio, television broadcasts, cable systems, satellite radio and wireline video providers.

  • This test is scheduled to last approximately one minute.
  • The test message will be similar to monthly tests of the emergency alert system.

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