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What Is the U.S. Emergency Alert System and How Does It Help?

Oct 11, 2022|

Have you ever been sitting on your couch watching your favorite cable show when you suddenly hear a series of loud beeps from your TV? Your screen changes colors, and a robot voice gives you an alert message about a severe weather system in your area. These emergency messages can be disruptive, but they are important for public safety.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is an important tool the government uses to warn people about local and national-level emergencies. It provides vital emergency information to residents about urgent issues.

If you’re unfamiliar with the EAS, this guide explains how it works and other helpful information about the system.

Woman watching a show on her tablet.

What is the U.S. Emergency Alert System?

The EAS is an American integrated public alert and warning system created to deliver sensitive information to citizens. State and local jurisdictions use the system to notify their communities about things like impending weather emergencies and Amber Alerts (child abductions) in their areas. Another main purpose of the EAS is to allow the president of the United States to address the public during a national crisis.

Broadcasters like television stations, radio stations, cable television networks, satellite radio companies, and wireline video companies deliver local emergency alerts on a volunteer basis to help spread preparedness.

Broadcasters are required to give the president an opportunity to address the nation when there’s a crisis. Whenever there’s a national emergency, the president will interrupt all the networks involved simultaneously to speak with the public.

The EAS is part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Although IPAWS is mostly managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there are actually three different organizations that work together to operate the EAS system.

These include FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and National Weather Service (NWS). Here’s what each organization does.

  • FEMA handles EAS activation at the national level and conducts national tests.
  • The FCC creates procedures for participating broadcast stations and service providers to follow when the EAS is activated.
  • The NWS provides weather forecasts and information about potential natural disasters in specific areas.

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What events trigger the U.S. Emergency Alert System?

The EAS is set off by local, state, and national emergencies. Local and state emergencies include natural disasters, severe weather conditions, evacuation warnings, and Amber Alerts. National emergencies include things like terrorist attacks, pandemics, and global conflicts.

Most EAS warnings are issued by the NWS for severe weather issues. The NWS is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS’s job is to provide weather forecasts, information, and warnings to the public.

You’ve likely seen EAS warnings whenever there’s inclement weather nearby. The NWS issues EAS warnings for severe thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes in your area. There’s also a government-run radio station dedicated to delivering severe weather reports. The NOAA Weather All Hazards (NWR) network exists to notify the public of severe weather conditions.

To make sure the EAS is working properly, the FCC mandates that state and local authorities must perform periodic tests. A required weekly test (RWT) needs to be conducted, as well as a required monthly test (RMT). Neither RWTs nor RMTs can be scheduled during important events, like presidential addresses.

RWTs are randomly scheduled (usually early in the morning or late at night) by media stations and must have a header with end-of-message (EOM) tones. EOM tones are three brief beeps that play after an EAS message. RWTs aren’t required to have an audio message, but many organizations include audio so that people with disabilities know what’s happening.

As the name suggests, RMTs occur every month. They’re similar to RWTs. On odd-numbered months (January, March, May, etc.), RMTs must be scheduled between 8:30 a.m. and sunset (for a particular locality). On even-numbered months (February, April, June, etc.), RMTs must be scheduled between sunset and 8:30 a.m.

FEMA requires a nationwide test for the EAS system that involves all the EAS participants in the United States. The nationwide test is generally scheduled to occur yearly but must occur at least once every three years. The national EAS test can be postponed due to circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic.

How does the U.S. Emergency Alert System help us?

But what’s so great about the EAS? Can’t local news stations issue their own emergency broadcasts to alert their communities? They can, but setting up an emergency broadcast takes time.

To transmit a local emergency broadcast, a television station would have to receive a story, analyze it, write a script, set up their audio and video equipment, assemble their anchors and crew, get everyone in place, shoot the message, and send it out.

In an emergency, every second counts. The more time residents have to prepare, the more likely they will stay safe. EAS messages are automated so that they can be sent out rapidly. EAS equipment is designed to deliver important information to radio and television receivers so that communities get the facts immediately.

EAS alerts begin with blaring tones that sound like a dial-up modem starting up (if you’re old enough to remember dial-up internet modems). These sounds are called Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) headers. In addition to grabbing your attention, SAME headers have coded information about where a message needs to be delivered.

When the EAS message gets to a television or radio receiver, special EAS tools at the station automatically translate the coded alert and broadcast it to the community. The computerized message lets residents know the nature of the emergency, which locations might be affected by it, what residents should do, and when the emergency warning will end.

Man checking alerts on phone.

What’s the best way to receive alerts from the U.S. Emergency Alert System?

Generally, you won’t have to do anything to receive EAS warnings. An EAS warning will interrupt the program you’re watching on television or listening to on the radio. But what if you’re not listening to the radio or watching TV?

There’s another arm of the national public warning system dedicated to sending warning messages to mobile devices, like your cellphone. The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) network sends targeted text messages about crises to mobile devices in areas that could be affected. You don’t have to subscribe to get WEAs. Your phone should automatically receive them.

WEAs are short and to the point (360 characters or less). They’re usually accompanied by a weird noise different from your normal text alert. When you receive a WEA, your phone should vibrate twice. The message will contain all the pertinent information about the emergency and advise you on what to do.

How to stay prepared for emergency alerts

EAS alerts should be taken seriously. They’ll generally tell you the best action to take immediately when an emergency arises. For example, a hurricane alert might instruct you to evacuate an area.

However, EAS messages are extremely brief. They can’t possibly contain all the information you need to protect yourself and your loved ones during an emergency. That’s why it’s important to have an action plan for emergencies most likely to happen in your area.

For example, if you live in a city in Texas or Oklahoma where tornadoes are common, your family’s tornado action plan might resemble the list below.

  • Seek shelter in the basement (or in a bathroom or closet on the lowest floor in your home).
  • Stay away from windows.
  • Try to get under something solid, like a heavy desk.
  • Cover your body with a blanket to shield yourself from flying debris.

You can go to to find information on how to be ready for various emergencies and instructions on how to create preparedness kits for various disasters that could occur.

Woman checking her phone.

Discover how Vivint home security systems can keep your home protected

When an emergency happens in your area, you need to know fast so that you can stay safe. Through the EAS system, the government uses automation to provide timely alerts to the communities that need them.

You can use automation in your own home too. Vivint has smart home security systems that can elevate your security processes so you can react to and handle potential threats, like intruders, severe weather, and fires.

Vivint even offers a professional monitoring service that can keep an eye on your home and automatically alert emergency services if anything goes wrong while you’re away.

When you reach out to Vivint, we’ll connect you with a knowledgeable installation expert who can answer all your questions about home automation technology. They’ll help you find the smart devices — like security cameras, locks, lighting systems, and thermostats — you need to build an ultra-convenient, efficient, and amazing smart home setup.

Find out how Vivint can make your home more comfortable and convenient. Call us at 855.822.1220 for a free consultation today.

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