Preparedness

Here's What Vail, Colo., Learned When It Tried Out the 'Presidential Alert' Messaging System FEMA Will Test Wednesday

The nationwide test is the first of its kind for the program that will allow the president to contact tens of millions of people across the country.

by Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post / October 2, 2018

(TNS) - Tens of thousands of phones throughout Colorado will buzz almost simultaneously Wednesday as national emergency officials test a system that allows the president to contact the nation through cell phones in case of an emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will send a text to all cell phones connected to the Wireless Emergency Alert system at 12:18 p.m. Wednesday. The nationwide test is the first of its kind for the program that will allow the president to contact tens of millions of people across the country.

Officials in Vail conducted a local test of the system in May, one of a handful of locations to do so. Denver emergency management staff also tested the system on Sept. 5, and they expected to reach about a million people.

The Vail test was a success and an opportunity to learn valuable lessons, said Jennifer Kirkland, 911 operations administrator at the town’s Public Safety Communications Center.

The test showed that not everyone in the designated area received the text. Kirkland was standing in the communications center in the middle of Vail when the message was sent. The phones of the people around her started to buzz and emit a loud blare.

“Everyone around me got the text, but I didn’t,” she said.

Others in town also didn’t get the message, she said, but the agency couldn’t determine why.

“There was nothing that we could pinpoint about why or why not you get the text,” she said.

Other recipients heard the tone but did not get the text, according to a survey conducted by Vail Public Safety Communications after the test. A number of people outside of the test area also received the messages.

“It reached a majority of people, but for us the key finding was that it’s like any other tool — you can’t use it just by itself,” Kirkland said.

The nationwide text on Wednesday will have a header that reads “Presidential Alert” and a brief message about the test, according to FEMA. Phones that are not on silent will make the same tone as they do when they receive tornado warnings or an AMBER alert.

The test was originally scheduled for Sept. 20 but officials postponed it until Wednesday due to Hurricane Florence.

Here are some things to know before Wednesday’s test:

No, you can’t opt out. While you can decide to no longer receive regional notifications, a 2006 law prohibits users from opting out of a presidential alert.

A Presidential Alert has never been sent before. Text alerts have been sent for regional weather and other emergencies, but a president has never used the system to send a text to the entire country about an “emergency of national consequence.” The national system will be tested for the first time Wednesday.

FEMA activates the alert. The president has to direct the agency to send an alert, but FEMA officials have to activate the message and send it out.

Receiving the alert does not allow the government to know your location.

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