Oct 3, 2018

First presidential wireless test alert will come to your phone today

Illustrated GIF of imagined rendering of presidential alert system

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Federal officials on Wednesday afternoon will run the first nationwide test of the wireless emergency alert system. It uses a type of alert that can only be sent by the president, and that consumers aren't able to turn off.

Why it matters: There's been some concern that President Trump could use the alerts to broadcast his own political messages, even though that’s not allowed under a law governing the alerts.

The details:

  • Starting at 2:18 pm on the East Coast, the test wireless alert message will be sent with the header “Presidential Alert” and text reading: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” The message will be broadcast for 30 minutes, but phones should only receive it once.
  • Starting at 2:20 pm on the East Coast, authorities will also test the nation’s broadcast emergency alert system, which operates through radio and TV stations.

There are two other types of alerts — AMBER Alerts for missing children and alerts notifying people of dangerous events like natural disasters — which are typically limited to certain geographical areas. Consumers can choose not to receive them.

The presidential alert will be received by all U.S. wireless users who have compatible phones that are turned on and connected to commercial networks run by the major wireless carriers.

  • “In the event of a national emergency, a Presidential WEA alert would be issued at the direction of the President and/or his/her designee, and activated by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” said the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA in a release.
  • Congress requires that the system be tested every three years. President George W. Bush authorized presidential alerts in 2006, but one has never been sent.
  • This test was postponed from last month because of the response to Hurricane Florence.

When the test was first publicized, some used social media to express displeasure with the idea of getting a message from Trump — and some saying they would turn off their phones in protest. FEMA officials insist the alerts will not be used for political purposes.

  • “You would not have a situation where any sitting president would just wake up one morning and attempt to send a personal message,” FEMA's Antwane Johnson said in a call with reporters. “The system is very well governed and rooted in law in terms of its intended use."
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