More than 200 million cell phones across the United States got pinged with a fake “presidential alert” Wednesday afternoon as a part of a nationwide test of emergency warning systems.
The notifications are part of two tests by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission to warn Americans of dangerous weather, missing children, and national emergencies.
The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) looked like a text message, and was followed by an Emergency Alert System (EAS) test, which will be broadcast on TV and radio. At 2:18 p.m., the WEA will release a message with a header that reads "Presidential Alert" and text that says: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” The Emergency Alert System message will be broadcast at 2:20 p.m.
While similar alerts have occurred in the past, this is the first time FEMA and the FCC are trying out a “presidential alert” system, where users won’t have the option of opting out.
The test had originally been planned for Sept. 20, but it was postponed because of Hurricane Florence.
FEMA and FEC officials said Tuesday they expected roughly 75 percent of cell phones in the United States to be pinged. Any phone that is “switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA should be capable of receiving the test message,” according to FEMA.
The federal government’s emergency preparedness has come under fire in recent years, for both under- and overperformance. In January, for example, a false emergency alert warning Hawaiians of an incoming missile created widespread chaos. According to the FCC, which investigated the mistake, it was caused by “inadequate safeguards” that failed to prevent a single employee from sending an alert, the commission said in a preliminary report.
And in September, the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that FEMA was overwhelmed during Hurricane Maria and that “shortages and lack of training” of employees weakened the agency’s response.
VICE News spent several days and nights at FEMA’s National Coordination Response Center in Washington, D.C., during Hurricane Florence to witness the agency in action.
Watch the video above.