At 2:18 p.m. on October 3, 2018, cell phone users in the United States will receive an emergency alert text message from the President. Fear not—this message is simply a test pilot for emergency alerts that current and future presidents can use to notify the public about natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other threats to public safety.
According to a 2015 U.S. law, the scenarios listed above are the only occasions during which the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system is authorized to send out mass messages.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have teamed up to send out the mass message, which will be the first national WEA test. Per the FEMA website, the EAS is a “national public warning system that provides the President with the communications capability to address the nation during a national emergency.” Thus far, EAS alerts have only been broadcast via television and radio, so receiving alerts to personal devices is uncharted territory. The website also stated that the objective of the test text is to “assess the operational readiness of the infrastructure for distribution of a national message and determine whether improvements are needed.”
Some concern about the tools intrusive nature and the potential for presidents to misuse the tool have come to light. This unease can be illustrated through the prime example of the “incoming missile” alert that was issued in Honolulu, Hawaii in January of 2018. Written in all capital letters, the alert read “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The false alert sent a wave of panic through the area for 38 minutes until the local authorities issued alerts to dismiss the threat, such as writing “There is no threat” on highway and traffic signs.
Some emergency management workers, however, have voiced support for the tool.
“I think it is an outstanding tool in the toolbox,” Nick Crossley, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, told NBC. “It is a great way to get notification to anybody who has a cellphone.”
The main difference between these new alerts and the AMBER alerts is that they cannot be turned off. Crossley explained that if people are able to turn the alerts off, they will be unprepared in the face of an emergency.
While the concerns of human error and misuse of this tool shed light on its potential shortcomings, if used properly, the alerts could prove useful in the event of a national emergency.
Note: The alert will be sent to all WEA compatible cell phones in the United States that are switched on and within range of an active cell tower. To check whether your phone is WEA-compatible, click here