Federal Government To Test ‘Presidential Alert’ System Thursday

Be prepared to get a test message from the Federal Government at 2:18 pm Eastern Time on Thursday. This is only a test.

The Federal Government will be conducting the first-ever test of a nationwide cellphone alert system first developed during the Obama Administration:

Next Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will do its first test of a system that allows the president to send a message to most U.S. cellphones.

More than 100 mobile carriers, including all the major wireless firms, are participating in the roll out, FEMA stated in a message on its website posted Thursday.

“The EAS [Emergency Alert System] is a national public warning system that provides the President with the communications capability to address the nation during a national emergency,” FEMA said.

The test message will have a header that reads “Presidential Alert,” according to the agency.

Users whose phones are on will twice hear a tone and vibration and then see an English-only (for now) message: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

The wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system was authorized by Congress in 2015 under a law that states the “system shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.”

Experts didn’t appear to be too concerned that Trump, known to use his smartphone to blast opponents, berate subordinates and take shots at the news media on Twitter, could abuse WEA.

“If you separate this from the politics and personality of any individual president then this is a great idea and an amazing use of technology to reach everybody if they’re in harms way,” said Karen North, director of the Annenberg Digital Social Media program at the University of Southern California.

UCLA communications professor Tim Groeling agreed, writing via email, “broadcast-based emergency alert systems … have remained professional and impartial over decades.”

The WEA is a new way to reach an America increasingly attracted to fragmented forms of media found on phones, tablets and laptops. The well-worn emergency alert system reaches mainly radio and television broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio and television providers.

“A system like this seems necessary in an era where most people are disconnected from ‘live’ media like radio and television,” Groeling said.

If you’ve purchased a phone since roughly 2015, it comes with a setting that allows it to receive certain alerts. Some of these, such as local weather alerts or Amber Alerts can be turned off, but the Presidential Alert is the one warning that, by law, cannot be disabled. The obvious purpose of something such as this, of course, is to allow authorities to get news and information to a wide number of people in the easiest way possible. It’s basically the cell phone version of the Emergency Broadcast System that we are all familiar with, mostly because of the tests that are broadcast over television or radio at various times. The system provides that it will cause every phone equipped with the capacity to receive the alerts will vibrate and issue an alert sound as well as a visual message as long as the phone is turned on. This alert system was created for basically the same purpose and was intended to address the fact that television and radio may not be the best way to communicate crucial information in a timely manner.

All of this brings to mind the incident that occurred earlier this year in Hawaii when a similar statewide system was mistakenly used to send out an alert about an inbound North Korean missile under circumstances that remain somewhat still unexplained given the procedures that were supposedly in place. For a short period of time at least, this caused thousands of Hawaiians to seek shelter against what they thought was the unthinkable but which ultimately turned out to be a big mistake. Hopefully, whatever lessons have been learned from that mistake are being applied to the system operating these Presidential alerts.

Inevitably, of course, this has led many people to make comments, whether serious or not, about President Trump using a system like this to send political messages like his Tweets to every cellphone owner. However, the system doesn’t work that way. This isn’t a system that the President can just pick up his phone and use as if it were Twitter. It is an operation controlled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security as well as the Federal Communications Commission and there are strict protocols regarding how and when it can be used. FEMA has more information about the system as well as information about Thursday’s upcoming test.

So, be prepared for your phone to buzz and ring on Thursday. Don’t worry, it’s just Uncle Donald calling.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Well, I’m deeply grateful this is out of Trump’s hands. I’d hate to get a 3 a.am. Fake News alert about “TREASON!”

  2. JKB says:

    Alyssa Milano is apparently losing her mind over this. While a message could come at anytime. Avoiding the test is easy, just turn off your cell phone on Thursday.

    I would have been more concerned about Obama using the system for political purposes. He has minions deep in the bureaucracy so his use would be facilitated rather than impeded.

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  3. @JKB:

    I would have been more concerned about Obama using the system for political purposes

    Insert eyeroll emoji here.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I blame Obama.

    If you’ve purchased a phone since roughly 2015, it comes with a setting that allows it to receive certain alerts.

    HAhahahahahahaha…. I will be free of this intrusion. Luddites unite!

    @JKB:

    I would have been more concerned about Obama

    You needn’t worry, you are immune to common sense.

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  5. RGardner says:

    It is smart to test out systems like this. When the weather alerts were being rolled out nationwide ~2012 they found the Midwest tornado warning model (alerts sent by county) didn’t work well near Seattle when everyone got a short message saying basically “blizzard warning, do not travel, see local news.” It turns out the warning was only for elevations over ~10,000 ft (i.e., the peak of Mt Rainier).

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Yeah, because Obama would have used it to call Rosie O’Donnell a fat pig, his own attorney general weak, and kiss Kim Jong Un’s ass.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    “The EAS [Emergency Alert System] is a national public warning system that provides the President with the communications capability to address the nation during a national emergency,” FEMA said.

    But what if the President is the national emergency?

    The wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system was authorized by Congress in 2015 under a law that states the “system shall not be used to transmit a message that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.”

    Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of.

    The Trump administration is a man-made disaster, and a threat to public safety, so he can legally use this all the time.

  8. teve tory says:

    I would have been more concerned about Obama using the system for political purposes

    I dream of a system where each downvote lightens the comment’s text by 5%. After 20 downvotes the text would be unreadable, but if you wanted to read it you could highlight it.

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  9. Tyrell says:

    I have some concerns about this nationwide cell phone test involving the Federal Government. That certainly implies that they have access to the phone numbers of the citizens. And with that comes our locations, searches, messages, purchases, reading lists, videos, and so on. The people have already been rocked by the privacy abuses by Facebook and other social media. What we don’t need is the Federal bureaucracy having even more access to our personal information.
    And just a few weeks ago the head of Google admitted in some Congressional hearing that they were left wing slanted and opinionated in their searches. After that I became more determined to remove Google from my Samsung phone, computer, Chromebook, and everything else they might have their tentacles in. I am looking for some resources on how to do that.
    If there is anything more powerful than Google, I would like to know what. It is a monopoly if there ever was.
    This is interesting: FBI shuts down solar observatory in New Mexico, takes over town (NYT) Can they do that?

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    And with that comes our locations, searches, messages, purchases, reading lists, videos, and so on. The people have already been rocked by the privacy abuses by Facebook and other social media. What we don’t need is the Federal bureaucracy having even more access to our personal information. [emphasis added]

    Only to the extent that you use your phone for your main computer link. Those of us who don’t–however small a number we may be, have no problems in that realm–and spend significantly less money on our cellphone service, too. Win-win!

    Join the wave now, Tyrell! Disconnect now and live free of fear! Use your phone only as a phone and save money and headaches!

  11. Ratufa says:

    @teve tory:

    I dream of a system where each downvote lightens the comment’s text by 5%. After 20 downvotes the text would be unreadable, but if you wanted to read it you could highlight it.

    If my aging memory recalls correctly, at one point OTB had a system similar to that. Personally, I’d prefer downvotes not have an impact outside of signalling the degree of popular like/dislike of a post.

  12. Tyrell says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: That makes a lot of sense. I did not have a cell phone until about four years ago. People used to ask what kind of cell I had, and they just could not believe I did not have one. And I got along just fine. Now instead of having discussions at the table, everyone is looking at their phones. And while they are driving.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell:

    And just a few weeks ago the head of Google admitted in some Congressional hearing that they were left wing slanted and opinionated in their searches.

    Citation, please, comrade.

  14. Franklin says:

    @JKB: I gave you a thumb’s up, because THAT was funny.

  15. Mike Schilling says:

    Trump could use it to talk about his re-election. That would be both a man-made disaster and a threat to public safety

  16. Tyrell says:
  17. Jen says:

    @Tyrell: Please tell me that you understand that:

    a) Google and Twitter are VASTLY different platforms; and
    b) Personal bias of a bunch of coders (!=) bias on the platform.