If you are still reeling from last week’s false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii, now is good time to learn more about our emergency alert system. Alerting the community to an emergency and how to deal with it has evolved well past ringing a bell in the village square to state-of-the-art digital technology to distribute messages. Alert delivery is built into cell phones and other devices, and there are a variety of apps to supplement the official government system.

However, mistakes can happen.

Human error caused the false missile message to be launched last week, but it also took officials 38 minutes to send out a corrected message. Those issues have been resolved. Tests and actual missile launch notifications from now on will require activation and verification by two people, according the Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency. Also, a pre-scripted cancellation command has been written and can be issued within seconds of an error.

Why the nationwide EAS system exists. The nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) allows officials to provide the public with life-saving information quickly. The system requires broadcasters, satellite digital audio service and direct broadcast satellite providers, cable television systems, and wireless cable systems to provide the President with a communications capability to address the American people within 10 minutes during a national emergency. EAS may also be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information such as weather information localized to your area.

Getting information in an emergency. Sources you may be familiar with for information during an emergency include NOAA Weather Radio, news broadcasts, the Emergency Alert System on radio and TV programs and outdoor sirens. A more recent addition is Wireless Emergency Alerts or WEA. Modern cell phones and other smart devices come with Emergency Alert notification technology already installed. It contains four types of alerts:

  • Presidential Alerts during a national emergency (this is the only alert that cannot be disabled)
  • Extreme weather warnings
  • Local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action
  • AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) urgent bulletins issued in the most serious child-abduction cases

Finding where these alerts are on your phone can be a little tricky. If you want to review or change your alert settings, search Google for “Emergency Alerts” for your particular phone model. Newer phones come with an Emergency Alerts icon already on the phone. Other phones contain alerts under the settings icon. These emergency messages will always come through when your phone is on- WEA messages are not affected by network congestion.

Other Emergency Apps. In addition to political threats, there are tons of apps to get tips to survive natural disasters, customize your emergency checklist and save meeting locations, receive alerts from the National Weather Service, locate open shelters, apply for assistance and more. The list below includes a sampling of various electronic alerting services, including links with information specific to Hawaii:

In addition, there are several apps you can download with guides that are helpful in an emergency, such as the American Heart Association’s Pocket First Aid & CPR Guide, or various guides by the American Red Cross that have suggestions on how to survive a natural disaster. There is even a Red Cross pet first aid app.

Those over 35 may remember the weekly broadcast notifications with loud tones and the serious “this is only a test” announcement. These tests were replaced in 1997 by less obtrusive state-of-the-art methods, but the ultimate goal of the Emergency Alert System remains the same: to disseminate emergency information as quickly as possible to the people who need it.