FEMA assesses issues after national emergency alert test

Oct 3, 2018

Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

Wednesday was the very first national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, and there are reports that some phones in Alaska and across the country did not receive the test message. State and federal officials are now working to sort out the kinks.

Millions of Americans’ phones made a strange noise Wednesday as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, tested the Wireless Emergency Alert System. But some phones did not go off, including here at KBBI.

The alert message originated at FEMA’s Washington D.C. headquarters and was sent through its internet-based Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.

A screenshot of the message that was sent out via the Wireless Emergency Alert System Wednesday.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

IPAWS is designed to alert Americans about national threats such as a terrorist attack, but the system also works with the Emergency Alert System broadcasters use to alert the public about regional emergencies such as floods.

Savannah Brehmer is the Region 10 spokesperson for FEMA, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. She said responses to Wednesday’s test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system have varied.

“Some people didn’t receive it at all. Some people received it multiple times. Some people had their phone on silent and only heard a vibration. Other people didn’t hear anything at all,” Brehmer explained. “Really the thing for listeners to know is the purpose of this test is to find those problems and errors so we can fix them for when we need to use an alert like this.”

There were issues here in Alaska as well. Alaska-based wireless carrier GCI recently integrated with the Wireless Emergency Alert system. Customers previously needed an app to receive emergency alerts on their phones.

GCI's graphic explaining the steps of how emergency alerts make it to cellphones.
Credit Courtesy of GCI.

Spokesperson Heather Handyside said 90 percent of GCI’s towers received Wednesday’s alert, but she said the wireless carrier is still trying to determine if there were any internal issues.  

“We are also getting reports that some of our customers did not get the alert,” Handyside said. “So, right now we are trying to assess the situation to figure out exactly how widespread the message was and if there are any patterns in the customers who did not receive the alert.”

GCI was not the only carrier to experience problems.

Several AT&T phones, including mine, did not receive the message while others on the network did. An AT&T spokesperson said that the company’s internal system worked just fine during the test. However, a software issue unrelated to the test did cause some AT&T customers to lose data services.

Verizon also reported a successful test, but a spokesperson did say that some phones might have not received the message due to loss of signal, out-of-date software and other technical issues, something FEMA also noted in its response.

Brehmer said FEMA is also working to sort out possible issues.   

“What we’re looking to do is compile the feedback and in about a month’s time be able to report out on how the test went,” she added.

Feedback can be sent to FEMA at fema-national-test@fema.dhs.gov. FEMA is asking for details on whether phones were on or off and the location of phones during the test among other technical details.

The Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is also soliciting feedback through a survey.  

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the email to send feedback to FEMA. It has been updated with the correct address.