On Wednesday at 2:20 p.m. Eastern (10:20 a.m. Alaska time), most Americans will simultaneously feel their cellphones vibrate, hear them make a loud sound and see a push alert pop up on their screens. Most radio and television stations will broadcast an alert at the same time for about one minute.
There is no national emergency, no reason to panic and nothing you need to do about the alerts. It is, as the text will say, just a test.
It’s a test of the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts, which are designed to let the government reach hundreds of millions of people in the United States immediately if there is a disaster affecting the entire country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission are conducting the coordinated test to see if the technology is working as designed and if any improvements are needed.
The sound is a unique tone that probably will interrupt classes and meetings, reveal the locations of hidden phones, and jar anyone not expecting it. The test itself is already leading to baseless conspiracy theories about how the powerful communication tool could be abused.
In reality, the system is designed to allow the government to reach people quickly in the case of an actual widespread emergency such as a terrorist attack. However, most disasters only require contacting people in a certain area and would not necessitate an alert to the entire country.
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What are the alerts?
FEMA is testing two systems that probably would be used simultaneously: the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which sends alerts to cellphones, and the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which sends them to televisions and radios. On phones, the message will say: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” On televisions and radios, you will hear: “This is a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covering the United States from 14:20 to 14:50 hours ET. This is only a test. No action is required by the public.”
The alerts will be accompanied by a unique vibration and a sound that, under federal law, can only be used for actual emergencies or authorized tests. This is the third nationwide WEA test and the seventh nationwide EAS test. The WEA message will appear in English or Spanish depending on your device settings.
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Who will get the test alerts?
Hundreds of million of people will see or hear a test message Wednesday. The wireless alert will go to all compatible cellphones in the United States that are turned on, use a participating cellular carrier and are within distance of a working cell tower. If you are from the United States but traveling outside the country, you will not get the alert. However, if you are visiting the United States from another country, your phone should still get the alert if you are using roaming and connected to a local cellular provider.
If you have cable or satellite TV, you will see and hear the test on your screen at the same time, and if you have a radio turned on, you will hear it. These tests will be similar to the usual monthly tests run locally by broadcasters.
Smartwatches, tablets and other connected devices might also receive the alerts depending on how they are set up and if they’re connected to cellular service directly or tethered to another device that is.
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Will it work on TVs without cable or antennas?
Cord cutters probably will not see the test message on their televisions. Currently, streaming services and hardware manufacturers are not required to participate in the test. So if you’re watching Netflix over your smart TV or an Android TV device, it will keep playing your show normally unless you are also connected to a broadcast service.
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How can you stop the test on your phone?
While most smartphones have options for controlling what emergency alerts you receive, there is no way to disable a national alert in your settings. You can try putting your phone in Do Not Disturb mode, but because there is variation in how different hardware manufacturers and cellular providers handle the test, that is not guaranteed to work.
You can silence the sound when it begins by clicking a button on your phone.
If you have a phone that you absolutely do not want to make a sound - for instance, if you are in an abusive relationship and have a hidden device - there is something you can do. Turn it off before 2:20 p.m. Eastern and do not turn it on for at least 30 minutes. The alerts should not send after 2:50 p.m. Eastern. If you are in a situation in which a phone needs to stay hidden for your safety, do not rely on muting it or other settings. Turn it off.
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When would this alert be used for real?
Most emergencies are localized. Hurricanes, earthquakes, chemical spills or active shooters all affect specific areas and would not get a national alert. So what would justify taking over the airways and sending a text to most people in all 50 states? Any threat to the entire United States that could require Americans to take some kind of action: an act of war or a terrorist attack, or even an event with global implications, such as an asteroid impact threat.
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What would be different if it were an actual emergency?
If the system was used for a real emergency, the text would include instructions about what action you should take to stay safe.
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Who can send the alert?
A real national alert could only be approved at the highest levels, including by the president or the FEMA administrator. The national wireless alert was previously called the “Presidential Alert” but was changed in 2022. That name caused confusion in October 2018, when FEMA had to clarify that the alert would not actually be written by President Donald Trump.
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Can you turn other emergency alerts off or on?
The national alert is just one of many you can get on your cellphone. You can opt in to or out of more local alerts in your phone’s settings. Start with our guide to emergency alerts for Android and Apple users.