The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will test a system at 2:18pm ET on Thursday afternoon that lets the president send a message to most cell phones across the U.S. following a disaster, terrorist attack, or other serious threat to public safety.
Yes, that means Donald Trump can now put your phone on blast. No, he probably won’t use the system to text you throughout the day with rambling bullshit about “13 Angry Democrats” or wishing “the haters and losers” a “special” September 11th, at least according to experts who spoke with NBC News.
The wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system was first approved by Congress in 2015 and restricts usage of the system to instances of “a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety.” According to NBC, those experts say the system is a good idea in a time when people are glued to their phones and the internet:
“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... A system like this seems necessary in an era where most people are disconnected from ‘live’ media like radio and television.”
If Trump were to order FEMA to warn the nation of the emergency threat posed by the cowardly Jeff Sessions and the very corrupt and unfair Robert Mueller, he would probably be in violation of the law—which, granted, is something he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about. However, anyone actually attempting to use the system would have to go through FEMA (namely, its Integrated Public Alert & Warning System) and rely on support staff trained in the complicated process necessary to transmit the message. As Vox reported, even those suspicious the president would abuse WEA generally agree it is a good idea:
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told me that the wireless alert system is a good idea, as is testing it — but having someone as volatile as Trump with control over it is concerning.
“I’m not sure that the system would protect us from rogue announcements by a president who has exhibited the kind of behavior President Trump has over the last two years,” Redlener said. “I personally would not give this microphone to Donald Trump.”
...“We need to accept the fact that any of these systems can fail, miscommunications can go out when the wrong button’s being pushed. That’s a given for any system of this type,” Redlener said. “What I’m more concerned about is the president of the United States taking control over such a system intentionally to create havoc, to make some sort of highly disruptive, highly political announcement.”
FEMA itself noted that the alert system is “only for national emergencies” on Twitter:
To the extent WEA has been criticized, it’s mainly been that the system has inherent limitations like a 90 character limit—partially as a result of pushback from carriers and smartphone manufacturers resistant to spending time and money on it.
It’s not possible to opt out of the system, and one shouldn’t, unless they like being caught off guard by potentially life-threatening disasters. However, it is possible to tweak an individual phone’s settings to simply ignore it (not recommended).
Regional WEA systems are already in place—for example, those AMBER Alert messages advising residents of the details of child abductions as well as flash flood, tornado, and hurricane warnings already go out using the system. Hundreds of agencies have access to the system. As Mashable noted, the national WEA test is new, but there have been three prior national tests of the predecessor Emergency Alert System, which goes out over television and radio.
Tests of the system are required every three years or less under the law, according to CNN.
The message going out on Thursday will read an English-only message stating “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”