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Widespread Failures Reported after FEMA Launches Presidential Alert System Test

The first test of the presidential alert system to our cell phones went out today over the cellular wireless networks between 2:18 p.m. and 2:48 p.m. EST under the direction of FEMA. It uses a system called WEA that stands for Wireless Emergency Alert.

The message read, "Presidential Alert, THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed. The alert was a test of the broadcast system to be used in the event of a national emergency."

But not everyone received it, and it’s not clear why it failed for some. The FEMA website notes that "WEA compatible cell phones that are switched on, within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA should be capable of receiving the test message."

But some people with phones that met these criteria did not receive the text message.

A FEMA spokesperson said, "The national EAS and WEA test messages were successfully originated and disseminated through FEMA’s IPAWS to the wireless provider gateways and EAS message servers. All wireless provider gateways acknowledged receipt of the test message." The spokesperson added, "Only WEA compatible cell phones that are switched on and within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA will be capable of receiving the test message. Additionally, if a user is on a call, or with an active data session open on their phone, they might not have received the message."

That last stipulation — that it may not work when the user is on an active data session — would seem to be a major limitation. After all, phones continually send and receive data both when we're using the phone and even when we're not.

According to Mike Smith, an author and expert on extreme weather who hosts a blog on weather, noted, “I was in a Wichita restaurant when the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) test went off earlier this afternoon. All phones were supposed to have alerted at 1:18 p.m. CDT. They didn't; not even close."

"While my iPhone 5 did trigger at 1:18, most phones in the restaurant didn't trigger until 1:21 and two did not trigger until 1:23 -- a five-minute lag," he said. "In the case of a tornado warning, that lag could get you killed. When I have been storm chasing there have been times WEA did not trigger at all even though I was in the geographic boundary of a tornado warning," said Smith.

"Of course, this was a 'Presidential Alert,' which is supposed to be the highest, most urgent. If nuclear warheads were incoming -- when we would have a maximum of 20 minutes to prepare -- a five-minute delay is inexcusable," he said.