When Emergency Broadcasts Go Wrong

Today, at 2:20 PM Eastern Time or shortly thereafter, cell phones throughout the United States are going to buzz, beep, and shake. And there isn’t much you can do about it. It’s part of a test of the American government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts, a system designed to let people across the nation know if something really bad or dangerous is happening. As CNN reports, “Essentially, what this means is that you can expect hundreds of millions of cell phones around the country to make a screeching alert noise at approximately the same time today, beginning around 2:20 pm ET” and your phone is likely to be one of those hundreds of millions: “while some recent models of mobile phones may include a setting to opt-out of tests and alerts, none of these settings will affect the 2023 national test.” You can turn your phone off put it on airplane mode if you really don’t want to be bothered, but don’t worry about it otherwise — as the message will say, this is only a test.

Unless someone screws up, that is. And if so, it wouldn’t be the first time. Or, for that matter, the second.

The most recent one you may remember. On January 18, 2018, Hawaiians received a push notification, as seen here, alerting islanders to an incoming ballistic missile attack, instructing them to seek shelter, and warning that “this is not a drill.” It was, in fact, a drill — and one that should have never involved regular people and their phones. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was running a test of their systems, and per some reports, an employee got confused, thinking that the training exercise was an actual emergency. Regardless of what the employee believed, what happened next was clear: chaos. As the Washington Post reported, “From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: ‘Test missile alert’ and ‘Missile alert.’ He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.” It took nearly 40 minutes for the agency to retract the erroneous message, and as you can imagine, a lot of people were very, very scared. (Here’s a second Washington Post article sharing some reactions.)  As seen below, the Hawaiian government did everything it could to communicate that this was a false alarm. Two agency executives resigned as a result of the scare, and the employee who screwed up was fired after an investigation.

But that incident, at least, only impacted Hawaii. In 1971, a mistake hit the whole nation. On Saturday mornings, TV and radio stations around the country participated in tests of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), almost always without incident. The EBS tests always ran the same way: a teletype operator stationed in Colorado sent a message to all of the stations, asking them to send a test message to their viewers and listeners. (Here’s a sample test seen on TV in 1983.) The message makes it clear that “this is only a test.” But as the New York Times reported, “an employee at the center, in a confusion over punched tapes that are prepared in advance, put on the wire to the country’s radio and television stations at 9:33 A.M. a message saying that the President had declared a national emergency and that normal broadcasting was to cease ‘immediately.'” About 20% of the nation’s stations either stopped broadcasting (if they weren’t designated as an emergency station) or switched to emergency programming. For example, as you can listen to here, WOWO Radio in Fort Wayne, Indiana immediately cut into a broadcast of a Patridge Family song to tell listeners that the station “did verify” a “special message” that was “directed by the President” was forthcoming — although no one knew what that message was about.

Like in Hawaii, panic set in. As the History Channel notes, “Frantic listeners called their local stations to find out what was going on. Others huddled around TV sets, fearing the worst. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging. Had the United States’ ongoing battle against Communism finally resulted in nuclear war?” And to make matters worse, the EBS struggled to inform stations that the message was a false alarm. In order to prevent malefactors from sending fake messages, the EBS used a codeword system — every three months, the EBS sent an envelope to stations with seemingly random words inside. As the Times reported, “for authentic messages, there are two code words—one to begin a message announcing an alert and another to end it.” The emergency message was sent out accidentally, but it was authentic and contained that first codeword. The EBS operators, though, couldn’t immediately find that second code word — it took them 40 minutes to officially correct the error. (Thankfully, informal channels were used to communicate the lack of danger more quickly.) 

No one was fired as a result of the 1971 mishap — the operator was a 15-year veteran of the service who, per the Times, simply said “I can’t imagine how the hell I did it.” And perhaps, it was all for the best. The panic aside, the fact that so few stations broadcast followed the instructions during the “real” emergency suggested that the system wasn’t working all that well. The FCC suspended all emergency alert tests for 20 months while they came up with a new system.

Today, hopefully, the emergency test will only be a minor annoyance. But if something goes wrong, to whomever is at fault: don’t feel too bad — you’re not alone.

Bonus fact: If you hear of a catastrophe, you may want to check your calendar; if it’s April Fool’s Day, there’s always a chance that the bad news is a prank. That’s what happened on April 1, 1980, in Boston; a local TV station decided to run a news alert that a local mountain had erupted. To drive the point home, the station aired footage of Mount St. Helens — an actual volcano on the other side of the country — spewing lava, with warnings from President Jimmy Carter dubbed over them. Many residents of Milton, Massachusetts — a town near the alleged eruption — fled their homes, and hundreds of others called the police asking for more information, despite the fact that the news segment ended with a card reading “April Fools!” Thankfully, no one died as a result of the prank. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the producer who aired the fake report was fired by the station a day or two later.

From the Archives: The Surprising Story Behind the Sound of Sneezes: “Achoo!” is, probably, an emergency broadcast, of a sort.