At exactly 2:18 pm on October 3rd, I received mine. A presidential alert sent to my mobile phone. It read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless System. No action is required.” For me, it was a reminder of my childhood years when those multi-colored, vertical bars and that high-pitched tone interrupted my television-viewing with the message, “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.” Interestingly, many people did not make the connection that the October test was just a contemporary version of that old-school alert system in many ways. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent out the first national test of the Presidential Alert system. According to published reports, 225 million devices (over 75% of U.S. mobile phones) received the alert and 2 minutes later, a similar message was sent to television and radio platforms. Interestingly, I also noticed that many people seemed to be somewhat misinformed, defiant, or even offended by the alert. Some people tried to disable the Presidential Alert (you can’t) or turned off their phones. I think the angst or confusion about the alert lies in the name.
Presidential Alert immediately triggers an association with a particular president. Headlines suggesting that Trump will be sending you a text did not help with messaging. Honestly, the country is so divided right now based on politics that it is not surprising that some people reacted to these alerts as if this was a personal messaging system from the President to each citizen’s mobile device. I could also see many opposed to President Obama reacting the exact same way if he was still in office. Ironically, Business Insider reports that “former President Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 requiring FEMA to create a system that lets US presidents send cellphone alerts regarding public safety issues like natural disasters and terrorism.” In more reasonable times, it would seem quite normal to receive a notification from the President in the event of dire national emergency or disaster. However, the reality of 2018 means there is suspicion and distrust. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 prohibits the use of the system for personal messages. The law specifically says,
implement the public alert and warning system to disseminate timely and effective warnings regarding natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters or threats to public safety…….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.
Though the message says “Presidential Alert,” the message was sent by FEMA in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission. Of particular concern, I noticed that many people disabled their Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system on the phone although Presidential Alerts cannot be disabled like an Amber alert or WEA messaging about a natural disaster. If you live anywhere that experiences floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or other extreme weather then you should not disable the WEA under any circumstances. If you did so for this test, please enable it.
I was actually stunned at the level of misinformation and political posturing centered around the alert system. One potential solution might be to use terminology like “National Emergency Alert” or “Public Alert.” Such wording neutralizes the tendency for citizens to anchor the alert system with a particular president. I also hope that future media reporting will be a bit more transparent in headline writing.
If you did not receive the 2018 Presidential Alert, contact your wireless provider or consider responding to the Department of Homeland Security survey at this link.