At 2:18 PM ET today, everyone with a mobile phone in the US will get a message blast from the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA). The alert won’t have any substantial content – it’s just a system test – but this sets a whole new precedent for how Americans are informed.
This message and will be labeled a “Presidential Alert” and, yes, will be coming at the direction of the White House. But FEMA officials said the administration can only send these alerts for emergencies affecting the whole country or if the public was in danger, according to Bloomberg.
“The EAS is a national public warning system that provides the President with the communications capability to address the nation during a national emergency,” according to FEMA’s post announcing the test.
The test will begin at 2:18 ETpm and gradually roll out to smartphone owners over a 30-minute period, so if you don’t get it immediately, just wait. A secondary test will go out at 2:20pm ET from the Emergency Alert System to radio and television.
The test was originally scheduled for September 30th, but was delayed due to Hurricane Florence.
Given Trump’s frequent criticism of individuals and groups on Twitter, it’s uncomfortable timing that this system is going live under his tenure. But to be clear, this new bulletin's roots stretch back over a decade.
The message will be sent through FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, which was launched in 2012. That sprouted from a 2006 Congressional act passed to fund a national alert system that President George W. Bush called for after the federal government’s bungled Hurricane Katrina response in 2005, according to CNET.
The new message will look like the others that the WEA the emergency alerts sent out to phone owners in regions facing severe inclement weather or abducted children (aka Amber Alerts). Expect the same double beep and vibration as you would receiving the other alerts.
So, to be clear, it’s the testing of an alert system, not a way for Trump to forcibly text you his thoughts. Not yet, anyway.
How do I block these?
You can’t, unless you can convince your carrier not to pass it along. Like the other emergency alerts, every major wireless carriers and most minor ones participate in the WEA program. But unlike weather and Amber alerts, individuals won’t be able to opt out of these Presidential Alerts.
The alternative is to buy a phone which isn’t WEA-compatible, but most newer wireless phones are. The other option is to keep your phone from connecting to a cell tower.
When will we get another message blast in the future?
Tough to say. Ostensibly, this is just for emergencies, and subject to FEMA’s judgment on what merits an unavoidable “Presidential Alert.” The agency is coordinating with the FCC to test out this system.
But given the alert goes out to a huge portion of Americans – today’s test will be sent to 225 million electronic devices, reaching about 75% of the devices in the country according to Bloomberg – we can assume only a dire national incident would prompt such a high-level alert.
It could be used for less serious dispatches like telling Americans to vote in the upcoming midterms, but since the system is in FEMA’s hands, we can presume it will only be used to warn us of impending disaster.
Is this weird?
Only because a “Presidential Alert” would be sent at the direction of Trump, who has broken with Presidential norms to furiously lecture from his Twitter podium.
it’s certainly possible that he could send an alert full of very Trump-like content using this system, but rules from that 2006 Congressional law mandate that WEA messages not be used for any personal message from the President.
We’ll have to see whether that limitation holds up. But the best-case scenario is that no emergency ever happens that’s serious enough to warrant a nationwide phone alert.
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David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.