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Wireless Emergency Alerts Tested on National Mall

FCC gave waiver to DC Homeland Security

If a serious emergency happens during Friday’s inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington, city officials will want crowds on the National Mall to know what’s going on. Wireless Emergency Alerts via mobile phones continue to grow in importance, but there has been only one presidential inauguration since the WEA system was fully deployed. So on Sunday, local security officials tested the WEA system in preparation for those presidential inaugural events.

Their targeted audience was people with cell phones or other enabled mobile devices on and around the National Mall. The message was “This is a test of the District of Columbia Emergency Alert System. No action is required.” The alert would trigger an audible noise from phones and mobile devices, and cause emails to be sent to certain city officials.

The accompanying photos are from the Twitter feed of the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency — DC Homeland Security for short — and suggest a smooth result. Their test was conducted in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and communications contractor Everbridge.

WEA messages are sent through the FEMA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System with which radio industry readers are familiar, but in this case are sent to wireless carriers, which pass the alert to mobile devices in a targeted area. Messages are not affected by network congestion, DC officials noted, and do not disrupt texts, calls or data sessions in progress.

FCC rules allow testing of WEA only in certain circumstances; the commission granted a limited waiver to the participating cell providers “in light of unique potential threats to public safety presented in this waiver request.” The commission noted that more than 1 million visitors may assemble on or near the mall later this week.

In the event of an emergency, DCHSEMA and its federal partners must be able to communicate quickly and effectively to the crowd,” the FCC wrote. “WEA offers this unique capability, and its use could be essential to ensure public safety in the event of an emergency. A live test would ensure that WEA can reach the entire National Mall yet be ‘geo-fenced’ to minimize any extension beyond this intended area.”

It said the test not only would help ensure that WEA can be deployed during the inauguration but will provide alert initiators and emergency managers information regarding the system’s geo-fencing capabilities and accuracy.

“The crowds and potential for disturbance and the deployment of temporary cellular infrastructure are expected to surpass that of the previous presidential inaugurations, justifying additional preparations and precautions,” the commission wrote in its waiver announcement.

Also involved in the test were Joint Forces Headquarters National Capitol Region, United States Secret Service, United States Capitol Police, United States Park Police and other federal agencies.