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Sparks

The FEMA Alert Test Is Creepy (But Not for the Reasons You Think)

Forget nukes and aliens — or, god forbid, “nanoparticles.” Extreme weather events can strike anywhere — and you’re being asked to rehearse.

A phone with an emergency alert.
Heatmap Illustration/FEMA

You’ll hear it in the grocery store, a racket rising from the cereal aisle and checkout lines. You’ll hear it on the subway or on the bus, so loud and synchronous and sudden that strangers will exclaim, laugh nervously, or make eye contact in surprise. You’ll hear it in the office, where it will cut off meetings mid-sentence and jolt the hands of anyone pouring themselves a third cup of coffee in the breakroom. You’ll hear it even if you’re alone: an unfamiliar two-part alarm from the spot on the couch where you left your phone, summoning you to see what is wrong.

This time, at least, nothing will be.

But at 2:20 p.m. ET on October 4, 2023 — that is, midday tomorrow — FEMA and the FCC will conduct a nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, prompting nearly every cellphone in the country to vibrate and make “a special sound that’s similar to an alarm,” even if it’s set to silent. (You also can’t opt out). You’ll additionally get a message to reassure you that we are not being nuked or worse: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed,” it will read in English or Spanish, depending on your phone’s settings.

Although this is a standard, federally required systems test — the second to be transmitted to nationwide cellphones after a similar exercise in 2021 — bizarre conspiracy theories have nevertheless emerged. Regrettably, the alert will not in fact “activate nanoparticles … that have been introduced into people’s bodies [via] the COVID-19 vaccine,” The Associated Press reported.

I sort of get it, though: The enormous scale of the test invites your imagination to run pretty wild. What sort of event would require the government to send every American the same emergency alert at the same time? (The agencies will also be conducting a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on television and radio in tandem with the cellphone test).

Experts, though, say the test is more likely an attempt to push the “technological limits of the system,” which will be used more frequently to target specific geographical regions for occasions like extreme weather (or, uh, manhunts). Of course, that makes the broad scale of the test chilling in a different way: FEMA isn’t just testing if it can push an alert to fire-prone communities in the American West or Tornado Alley; they want to be sure they can reach everyone, everywhere.

It’s fairly unlikely that there will be an extreme weather event that will affect the entire continent at the same time, though the smoke and heat this summer came close. But it is likely that everywhere in the country will continue to experience extreme weather. Warning systems like FEMA’s are still one of the best ways to save lives in such scenarios. And tests like tomorrow’s are necessary because the alert systems remain worryingly imperfect (or are imperfectly implemented, like the time an emergency management officer sent everyone in the state of Hawaii an incoming ballistic missile warning with the words “THIS IS NOT A DRILL”).

But there is an even bigger, more ominous reason why tomorrow’s test is so essential. Joseph Trainor of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center told CBS News that the natural reaction to an emergency alert on your phone is something called “milling,” when recipients “have to kind of process [the message], and make sense of what’s going on, and decide if they’re going to do something.” In that sense, “warning systems and alert systems, they get you started,” Trainor added. They are a rehearsal for if — for when — the real thing hits.

It doesn’t have to be something like terrorists or aliens. Our own environments are threatening enough for FEMA to need the ability to reach as many people as possible, as quickly and efficiently and assuredly as possible.

And now you’ve been warned.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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