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Florida folks dragged out of bed by false emergency texts

Laugh while you can, UK residents – you've got a nationwide emergency alert system test this weekend

Florida residents – and a lot of them, in all likelihood – were awoken at 0445 local time on Thursday morning by an emergency alert. To make matters worse, it wasn't even a real emergency, just an incorrectly sent test.

The state's Division of Emergency Management issued a mea culpa tweet several hours later, apologizing for the system shock to Florida residents and saying it wasn't supposed to happen at all. 

"We know a 4:45 AM wake up call isn't ideal," the division said. "This alert was supposed to be on TV, and not disturb anyone already sleeping." A division spokesperson implied that the state itself wasn't at fault, telling The New York Times that the agency "was taking the appropriate action to remove the company responsible for submitting the alert this morning."

For those outside the United States, where such wireless emergency alerts have been a standard part of life since 2012, the alarms can be cacophonous. They come without warning and can be sent for a variety of reasons, like local states of emergency, weather events, law enforcement alerts and the like. The tone used for the alert is unique, and affected devices also vibrate to ensure those hard of hearing are informed. 

In Florida's case, the test appears to have been sent to every wireless subscriber in the state, according to a tweet from Florida's St. Lucie County government noting it didn't send the alert, the state did.

This isn't the first time US emergency alert blunders have made the news - who could forget the Hawaiian ballistic missile panic of 2018

Residents of the island state received an emergency alert on a Saturday morning in January warning of a "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL." It was a drill, but some confusion led operators to believe there was an actual inbound missile threat. 

Despite the calls to Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency that included pre-recorded notes at the beginning and end of the call informing operators it was an exercise, the rest was a recording that was supposed to be used in the event of an actual nuclear threat, with the voice telling Agency operators "this is not a drill." Agency officials obviously decided to err on the side of caution, and so an official ballistic missile alert was sent.

The US emergency alert system has enough on its plate from actual false alarms, but even those may be the least of citizen's concerns. Last year it was pointed out that there are significant security holes in the emergency alert system that could lead to remote compromise and fake alerts, which experts believe will only be made worse as more large-scale systems like EAS are interconnected.

In 2018, an European Union directive insisted member states introduce a mobile phone warning system called the EU Alert. Germany implemented it as DE-Alert; the Netherlands as NL-Alert; France the FR-Alert, Italy the IT-Alert and so on.

Many EU countries began testing their systems in the next five years, with Germany performing a test in November last year.

UK alert system tests this weekend

The UK government said last month that its own similar emergency alert system had been brought online, and would operate in a similar manner to the US system.

A UK-wide alert system had already been tested prior to this, with O2 customers getting a 0745 wake-up call back in May 2021, and later that year, receiving a "loud, siren-like sound" on their cellphones on a Tuesday afternoon.

"Emergency Alerts will be used across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and their initial use will focus on the most serious severe weather-related incidents, including severe flooding in England," the government said last month. 

Like systems in the US and elsewhere, the UK's emergency alert system will broadcast emergency signals from cell towers in the vicinity of an emergency to all phones in range and able to receive emergency alerts. 

And get ready - the first nationwide test is happening this coming Sunday. "A UK-wide alerts test will take place in the early evening of Sunday 23 April which will see people receive a test message on their mobile phones," the government said. ®

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