Emergency Alert System: How does it help us, what are the problems

The Emergency Alert System or EAS is a comprehensive network of warning systems across the USA. The aim of the system is to keep people safe by informing the population of emergencies. The alert system will tell you what you should do in an emergency and in some cases where you should go in order to keep safe in a crisis.

The Emergency Alert System is most commonly used to spread information regarding threats to safety such as fire, flooding or tornadoes. It is also used to alert the public of specific threats such as child abductions, known as an AMBER warning. It can also alert you to mass shootings or other localised civic emergencies.

The EAS relies on a number of government agencies to make it work. The Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA) which is an offshoot of Homeland securities provides crisis management and support.

There is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which is crucial for setting up the way the alerts are broadcast and spread around the country.

There is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which provides the information on weather and climate.

One of the original concepts of the Emergency Alert System was to enable the President to speak directly to the nation in times of crisis. However in most cases it is used to broadcast safety information rather than political messages.  

If you are in a danger area where the situation can change very rapidly, gaining access to emergency alerts can make the difference between life and death. The important thing to know is that the emergency alert system will provide the most up to date advice possible and its major purpose is to keep you safe.

Understanding the Primary Entry Point Stations

Today’s EAS started as the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963. This system provided only audible alerts to let everyone know of a threat. There wasn’t targeted messaging. The system continued to grow until in 1997, the EAS started, which allowed the President access to the American public within 10 minutes of hearing of an emergency.

The modernization of the system led to the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which uses the Common Alerting Protocol to distribute messages to the general public. This led to creating Primary Entry Point stations which are broadcast stations situated strategically throughout the US. Each station has direct access to FEMA and strong transmission abilities. Today, FEMA has created enough PEP stations to ensure that 90% of Americans can hear the broadcast messages.

Where can you find Emergency Alerts?

Emergency alerts are spread through a wide range of broadcasting mediums; the internet, the phone network, TV channels, radio, satellite and cable, social media online such as Twitter. The aim is that if the internet goes down or even the electricity fails, you can still receive these important emergency alerts via one of these mediums.

In times of extreme localised crisis, an emergency alert may be broadcast by messages relayed via loud hailers broadcast from army trucks but the system does not start with this last chance desperate measure.

Emergency alert on TV today

The Emergency Alert System is public service that requires all broadcasters and communication services to work together. So all TV stations, radio stations, satellite channels, cable TV and wireless services will air emergency alerts if there is a situation that requires you to act, such as a fire or other weather crisis.  

If it is a national emergency, coverage will be nationwide. Typically, the content will be interrupted while this important emergency information is passed on to the audience. This type of emergency would include a state of war being declared so a nationwide emergency alert has never actually been used although the system is occasionally tested.

The most recent test at the time of writing was in August 2019 and to avoid any misunderstandings or panic, the TV channels and radio stations provided plenty of advance warning. 

This means that if your TV or radio is playing and suddenly the show stops for an emergency alert is important to listen and to act. You will only receive an alert if the crisis is in your area and you need to take action.

By contrast if you live thousands of miles away in a non affected state, you will see generalised news coverage of the crisis but not the emergency information that is so important to local residents.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

Today, the Emergency Alert System had to create capabilities to warn Americans via their wireless devices of a threat. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) was created as a part of IPAWS. WEAs come across your wireless device, alerting you of an issue such as:

  • National weather alerts
  • AMBER alerts
  • Messages from the President

WEAs come across looking like a text message, but they are audibly different. Everyone in the room will hear the alert as it is loud. You must talk to your wireless provider about enabling this service, should you desire.

Emergency alerts on your iphone

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) is a very important component of the Emergency Alert System. These alerts are sent directly to your phone so that you know in an instant whether there is an emergency in your area.

If you have a landline you will receive a recorded message over your phone. If you have a smart phone, it will be sent by text.

All phone providers subscribe to the system on a voluntary basis and it provides a comprehensive and nationwide warning system.

There are three types of alerts you may receive through your phone.

  • Alerts issued by the President of the United States
  • Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
  • Amber Alerts about missing children

With smart phones, these messages come in the form of texts and your phone will vibrate and make a unique alarm tone so that you know that this message is not to be ignored.

A WEA message is short and to the point. They are never longer than 90 characters and will include the following information:

  • The type of the alert.
  • The time
  • The action you should take
  • The agency issuing the warning

An emergency alert through your cell phone will be unaffected by any network congestion and it will not disrupt the use of your phone or interfere with any other calls, email or video calls you may be making.

 Because it is sent via text and comes with an alarm, you can easily access the information but it does not override your other phone functions.

Receiving emergency alerts is free and even if your phone is out of credit, you will still receive these emergency texts.

The downside about relying on emergency alerts being sent to your phone is that not all cell phones are compatible with EAS alerts. You need to check this with your provider. If your phone is not compatible, it is probably time to upgrade.

 In addition if your phone is registered to New York and there is an emergency in California for example, you might not receive the text. Likewise if there is an emergency in New York and you are out of town, you will receive an alert even though you are not in the area

All that said, the WEA system has been very a valuable tool in times of crisis. Since the system was set up in 2012, it has been used 49,000 times to alert people to missing children and to warn of dangerous weather and other life threatening situations. 

Local emergency alerts

Local emergency alerts can provide very localised information. Alerts can be sent to a specific neighbourhood of a city but in general the coverage is wider than the affected area and the wireless providers and the government are working together to improve this issue.

Typical local emergencies may include severe weather warnings, mass shootings or warnings of child abductions.

Emergency alert warnings are be issued by state and local authorities working in cooperation with the broadcasting authorities.

Wireless emergency alerts work through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System IPAWS using information from all the government agencies to provide the most up to date advice for any crisis.

You will receive up to date local emergency alerts via your TV, radio, satellite, landline and cell phone.

Emergency Alerts on Twitter

Although Twitter is unregulated and chaotic, when it comes to an emergency situation it moves fast.

You can find official emergency twitter alerts such as the US Emergency Alert @ENSAlerts. This provides AMBER warnings in the case of missing children and also provides detailed information about emergencies nationwide.

When it comes to a local emergency, information is detailed and precise, explaining which areas need to be evacuated, where people should go and the areas you need to avoid.  If you use Twitter you should certainly follow this account.

Twitter is also good for finding out about any emergency as it happens. As soon as a situation such as freak weather or a mass shooting occurs, people will begin tweeting and posting pictures online. In many cases Twitter gets the most up to date news before the emergency services even have time to act.  

Although you have to be careful when using Twitter and you can’t believe everything you read, twitter alerts are a good way to follow the events of an emergency as it happens.

Emergency Alerts Today

As technology develops, emergency alerts can be spread to a wide audience much faster than would have been possible a few years ago.

Whether you rely on your cell phone, your TV set or your radio, if there is a crisis in your area, you will know about it as soon as possible.

 An emergency alert on TV today 2019 will be out there as soon as the crisis develops and will help you to take action as soon as you know about it. This can improves your chances of survival and will minimise the risks to life and property if you have some advance warning.

As with everything, there is a downside. As in the fairy story about the little boy who cried wolf, if you receive too many emergency alerts, it is easy to become casual about emergencies and ignore them.

Don’t ignore Emergency Alerts Today

Luckily not all alerts will develop into life threatening situations however when an alert is seen as a false alarm, it may cause you to ignore future alerts and simply wait and see.

 This is a very dangerous strategy. All emergency alerts are issued for a good reason and just because you got lucky last time, doesn’t mean that next time you will be lucky again.

You should always follow the instructions of your emergency alert. These are not issued lightly and come as a culmination of numerous facts and figures, involving highly trained experts. 

How to stay safe when you receive an emergency alert

If you live in an at risk area or have worries that an emergency situation may get out of control, some forward planning will help you stay safe. You don’t need to wait for an emergency alert to tell you things are getting dangerous and some simple precautions will help you prepare.   

Make sure that you have a bag packed and some emergency food and water packed in your car. Make sure that your vehicle has plenty of gas so you can leave without wasting time in lines queuing for fuel.

Make sure that your cell phone is fully charged so that you can access updated vital information and local emergency alerts as the situation develops. You may need blankets or bedding and a flash light is always useful.

If you think that you may be required to evacuate your home, it is important to be ready. Round up pets and family members because if you have to leave fast you can’t afford to waste time in tracking everyone down.

If you take prompt action, it will give you time to secure your home so that when the emergency is over, you can return and damage will be minimal.

When you receive an emergency alert it is important to act fast. Even if the potential disaster is averted, you can’t afford to gamble with the safety of your home and family. The Emergency Alert System is designed to help you, so ignore it at your peril!

Problems with EAS

EAS isn’t without its problems. Yes, it alerts the American citizens, but how effective is it? The FCC decided to test that theory on November 20, 2011, since up until that point, the President had not had to utilize the system, so no one knew if it really worked. With FEMA, the FCC ran a live test with live codes the President would have used if there were an emergency.

The result of this test was an 18% failure. There were inconsistencies with how people received the messages. Some stations had text messages but there wasn’t the audible sound we are all used to with an emergency alert. This poses a serious issue for the disabled, especially the blind. Other stations only had audible alerts and no visuals, which would pose a problem for the deaf.

Fortunately, today there are many other methods to get the messages out, including social media, so an 18% failure rate isn’t the end of the world.

The important thing to know is to act fast should you hear or see an alert from the EAS. While the system isn’t perfect, it certainly does get the message across that something is of concern and action needs to take place.

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