Your cell phone will receive a national alert today, October 3, at around 2:18 pm ET. It’s only a test, so there’s nothing to worry about. Here’s what you need to know about these “presidential” alerts.

What are Wireless Emergency Alerts?

This is the US government we’re talking about here, so get ready for some acronyms. We’ll try to keep them to a minimum, though.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system proper was created in 2012, but it’s actually been around longer than that. The FCC proposed and created the alert network in 2007 in response to an act passed by Congress in 2006—the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act. It was originally named the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), was later renamed the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), and is now finally the WEA.

The idea behind the WEA is to be able to deliver alerts of different kinds to people all over the US but to also be able to target them to specific geographic regions when necessary. Right now, in cooperation with major wireless carriers, FEMA can deliver alerts nationally or to an area as small as a single county. They do this using a system known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS is designed as a way to coordinate public safety alerts at the national level, whether those alerts are intended for the entire nation or a more targeted local area.

Through IPAWS, FEMA and other agencies (like NOAA and the White House) can issue public safety alerts through a number of different systems:

  • WEA: The WEA delivers alerts to cell phones.
  • EAS: The Emergency Alert System delivers alerts via radio and television.
  • IPAWS-NOAA Gateway: This is used to deliver alerts to weather radios.
  • IPAWS News Feed: This is used to deliver alerts to internet applications and websites.

It’s a robust system that helps ensure public safety alerts can reach a large percentage of the population.

Okay, So What is a Presidential Alert?

IPAWS allows for three basic types of alerts:

  • Presidential Alerts: These alerts are (by law) only used to alert the public of national emergencies—think terrorist attacks or widespread natural disasters. The alerts are issued at the direction of the President (or an appointee) and are activated by FEMA representatives.
  • Extreme and Severe Threats: These alerts are used to alert the public to imminent safety threats, and are mostly used for weather warnings. Alerts of this type are typically sent to targeted geographic regions.
  • AMBER Alerts: These alerts notify the public about child abduction. They are also typically sent to targeted geographic regions.

Though the Presidential alert system was established in 2006, this is its first nationwide test.

What Can I Expect Today?

The test today is a joint WEA and EAS test. At 2:18 pm ET (or shortly after), you should see a text-based notification similar to a weather or AMBER alert. The text “Presidential Alert” will appear at the top and the message itself will read:

“THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

If you happen to be watching television or listening to the radio around that time, you’ll also see this alert broadcast out over the Emergency Alert System (EAS). According to FEMA, that message will read:

“THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System. This system was developed by broadcast and cable operators in voluntary cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and local authorities to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency an official message would have followed the tone alert you heard at the start of this message. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message; others will not. No action is required.”

If your phone is turned off or if you are on an active call at the time of the alert, you won’t receive the alert until you turn your phone on again or end your call. It’s also possible that if you leave your phone off or have a call that lasts for more than 30 minutes, you might not receive the alert at all. That’s one of the things they are testing. You also have to be within range of an active cell tower to receive the alert.

Can I Block These Alerts?

In accordance with the WARN act, you are allowed to block imminent safety and AMBER alerts, but not Presidential alerts. You can turn your phone off (and leave it off for about half an hour) if you don’t want to receive the alert. You can also set your phone to vibrate.

Want to Learn More?

If you want to know more about any of this stuff, check out the following sites:

Image Credit: Justin Singer/FEMA

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Walter Glenn is a former Editorial Director for How-To Geek and its sister sites. He has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry and over 20 years as a technical writer and editor. He's written hundreds of articles for How-To Geek and edited thousands. He's authored or co-authored over 30 computer-related books in more than a dozen languages for publishers like Microsoft Press, O'Reilly, and Osborne/McGraw-Hill. He's also written hundreds of white papers, articles, user manuals, and courseware over the years.
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