Get ready for a new alert coming straight to your phone, this time from the president himself.
On the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 20, FEMA will send two alerts to cell phones across the nation, both of them tests of its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). At 2:18 p.m. ET, there will be a test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which will be followed at 2:20 p.m. ET by the first ever national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system.
For instance, every time your iPhone blares a local Amber Alert, that’s the WEA in action.
The FCC has a pretty helpful FAQ that explains, among other things, that, no, you can’t be tracked via this system. Dozens of mobile carriers, including all of the major carriers, are part of the system meaning you’ll likely receive the alert.
And the EAS itself has been tested nationally three previous times: twice under president Obama (Nov. 2011, Sept. 2016) and once under President Trump (Sept. 2017).
What’s gotten people’s attention is that these alerts allow direct communication between the president and the nation in case of an emergency, like a natural disaster or terrorist attack. So, yes, that means that President Trump will be able to send an emergency alert directly to your phone using a system you can not opt out of.
This news has, understandably, got some folks a little skeptical.
*Cellphone EMS alert goes off at 4:30am
******WHY WONT JEFF SESSIONS INVESTIGATE THE LEAKERS. NO ONE DIED IN PUERTO RICO. WITCH HUNT*******
— Stephen Miller (@redsteeze) September 15, 2018
But there are safeguards in place to prevent any president from abusing this system.
First of all, it’s worth noting that the president is just another authority that has access. Hundreds of agencies already have the ability to send these alerts. And, again, the system that would allow a presidential alert was established years before Trump took the Oval Office so this isn’t some sort of wild Trump scheme for world domination.
Secondly, the actual process of sending one of these alerts is far more complicated than just firing off a string of tweets as Trump likes to do. Skimming this protocol document (check out page 34 in particular) gives you an idea of exactly how complex putting together these messages can be. Point being, there are going to be layers between Trump and the actual message. Trump’s not going to be the one typing out the message and hitting send.
Not that mistakes don’t happen, as evidenced by the panic that ensued when someone in Hawaii mistakenly sent a ballistic missile alert in January. But, if nothing else, that mistake helped expose flaws in the system, flaws that will hopefully be addressed by something like the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act of 2018, which was introduced in the Senate this summer in direct response to Hawaii’s false alarm.
Third, there’s actual law that would prevent any president from using the alert system like a personal Twitter feed. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 specifically says:
Use of System.—Except to the extent necessary for testing the public alert and warning system, the public alert and warning 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.
In other words, if Trump were to use this system for anything other than a 9/11-style terror attack or a large scale natural disaster, he would literally be breaking the law. Of course, given the current state of things, that may not be much comfort.
But experts seem confident even Trump can’t mess this up. UCLA communications professor Tim Groeling told NBC News he didn’t foresee this system, a logical evolution of a system that’s been in place for decades, as being susceptible to abuse: “broadcast-based emergency alert systems … have remained professional and impartial over decades.”
So when you get that “Presidential Alert” on September 20 (or possibly the back-up date of October 3), don’t let your blood pressure shoot up too high. It’s just a test and unlikely to fall victim to abuse from Trump before he leaves the Oval Office.