Just a Minute: Alert system passes test; citizens fail to be impressed

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At 2:18 p.m. Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission conducted a test of the nationwide Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alert System.

Text messages were sent to cellphones while radio and television stations broadcast warnings. The messages read: “Presidential Alert. This is a test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

The system launched in 2012 after Congress passed a law to fund it. But Wednesday’s alert marked the first time the system was tested nationwide. An actual presidential alert would mark a significant national crisis.

The Sun Journal watched at 2:18 p.m. to see and hear how people reacted to the test alerts.

Dr. Peter Siviski reacts after getting an alert via the Wireless Emergency Alert System on Wednesday afternoon at Lewiston City Hall. He said he approved of alerting people by cellphone in case of a national emergency. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

‘Oh my God’

The beeps on cellphones squawked at 2:18 p.m. as people waited to speak to someone at the tax collector’s window at Lewiston City Hall.

“Presidential alert. Oh my God!” one woman said with a surprised look while holding up her cellphone. “I think it’s a joke,” she said, but wondered whether the new system was in place for the president “to let us know he’s taking us to war. That’s where he’s taking us.” She declined to give her name.

Dr. Peter Siviski, holding his phone, asked others if they got the alert.

“It said, ‘This is a presidential alert'” and citizens didn’t have to do anything.

“Remember the Emergency Broadcasting Network?” he asked. “The new system is probably a new way for the government to communicate … A lot of people have a cellphone. It’s a good way to communicate. I think it’s a good thing.”

— Bonnie Washuk

Pet owner’s grief 

At 2:18 p.m., just as the alert was coming in, I was taking a call from Heather Burgess, an Auburn woman who just a couple of days before had witnessed her 11-pound schnauzer being mauled by a German shepherd.

As the alert came through, I was listening to Burgess describe the horror of watching her dog Zane perish in the jaws of the bigger, meaner dog.

“He died in my arms on the corner three blocks from my house where he was dragged,” Burgess said.

The more she described the experience, the more horrific it became, and the vivid pain of this grieving woman easily outmatched anything the federal government had been trying to tell me through its silly alert.

— Mark LaFlamme

Suzanne Bombok, right, and other workers at Forage Market in Lewiston look at their phones at 2:18 p.m. Wednesday after receiving an emergency signal as part of a nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Not from him! 

At Forage Market in Lewiston — a place known for caffeinated networking and local students manning the register — the reaction to Wednesday’s presidential alert was a bit delayed.

At first, no one looked up from talking or reading the paper. A couple walking into the bagel shop quickly glanced at their phones and didn’t give it a second thought. But the age-old, cringe-inducing sound of a public alert could be heard on a radio somewhere, which tipped off most of the staff.

One kitchen staff member said he would be OK with an alert system from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but wasn’t keen on one word that appeared on his cellphone screen: “presidential.”

“I don’t want to get messages from him,” he said.

A few minutes later, as more people began checking their phones, there were similar feelings.

“The president just sent us all something on our cellphones,” another staff member said. “It’s, like, creepy.”

— Andrew Rice 

Meh at Bates College

On Alumni Walk at Bates College at 2:17, the leaves on the little birches that line the paths were turning  yellow. When the breeze picked up, some fell.

Students carrying backpacks walked purposefully between the dining hall at Commons and their dorms or classrooms. Many wore earphones. A few rode skateboards.

One young woman leaned against a concrete seat, chatting on a video call while another typed steadily on her laptop.

At 2:18, when the emergency alert signal blared, none of them appeared to notice.

But a woman walking two dogs in front of nearby Pettengill Hall stopped under a tree to stare at her cellphone.

“I thought I pressed something on the phone and I didn’t know what it was,” said Dr. Maria Ikossi, a thoracic and cardiac surgeon for St. Mary’s Health Care System.

Ikossi said she wanted to take advantage of a sunny afternoon to take a stroll with the dogs.

The emergency alert test from the president didn’t seem to rattle her, or anyone.

— Steve Collins

Christopher Matthews, right, and his friend Ian Reed play “Grand Theft Auto” at the Lewiston Public Library on Wednesday afternoon. Both received pings on their cellphones from the Wireless Emergency Alert System. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)

‘Grand Theft Auto’ interrupted

Christopher Matthews and Ian Reed of Lewiston were taking turns playing the “Grand Theft Auto” video game at the Lewiston Public Library moments before their phones pinged.

Matthews was a little surprised the government was making the effort to test the system.

“It’s a little late in the game,” he said. “It’s weird that they’re doing this much after so many years. The first alert ought to be when the president tells the truth.”

Interruption over, it was back to “Grand Theft.”

“Have you ever stolen a chopper?” Reed asked his friend, eyes intent on the screen.

“Not in real life,” said Matthews, watching over his shoulder.

— Kathryn Skelton

Judge Rick Lawrence presides in 8th District Court in Lewiston on Wednesday during the national Wireless Emergency Alert System. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Disorder in the court

In courtroom No. 2 in 8th District Court in Lewiston on Wednesday, Judge Rick Lawrence was speaking to a woman who denied she violated her bail conditions.

Roughly a minute later, at 2:19, an alarm sounded from several cellphones.

Lawrence noted the interruption, saying: “We’re receiving an alert from the president.”

One of the Androscoggin County Jail transport officers, who was fumbling with his cellphone, apologized to the judge and explained that the alert had overridden his phone’s silent mode.

Lawrence quickly returned to the court’s business.

— Christopher Williams

Donna Melville, left, and June Marston visit Good Karma Cafe and Health Foods in Rumford on Wednesday afternoon as the nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System pings Marston’s phone. (Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times)

Good Karma Cafe

The emergency signal going off on June Marston’s phone didn’t startle her at all, she said, as she glanced at her screeching phone while sitting at Good Karma Cafe and Health Foods with Donna Melville.

Marston said she had heard about the emergency warning the night before, but she’d forgotten about it until it happened.

The two women were waiting for Melville to start her work for the day packaging bulk items for the cafe.

“I like to work here,” Melville said, and owner Glen Gordon piped up and said, “She is (also) our motivational life coach and cheerleader.”

— Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

The barnyard bunch at a farm in Bolsters Mills village in Harrison on Wednesday didn’t have much to say about the nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, apart from muffled munching. (Jon Bolduc/Sun Journal)
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