Right on schedule, the nation got a POTUS alert Wednesday — not on Twitter or TV, but in a message delivered straight to the cell phones of ordinary Americans, as long as their providers were board and they were in range of an active cell tower.
Prior to the alerts going out, FEMA had provided a link to detailed information on the alerts that were texted to phones nationwide at 2:18 p.m. and 2:20 p.m.
The messages are dubbed Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, and Emergency Alert System, or EAS. The primer from FEMA said the former would bear the imprimatur of the White House.
“The WEA test message will have a header that reads ‘Presidential Alert’ and text that says: ‘THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed,’ ” FEMA wrote.
So if there’s no soundbite from the commander-in-chief, why call it a Presidential Alert? To borrow a well-worn phrase from a phone commercial, there’s a precedent for that.
“The title ‘Presidential Alert’ has its historical roots in the Emergency Alert System and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System,” FEMA wrote. “The actual event code is Emergency Action Notification or EAN.”
And while you can block that cloying ex or irritating in-law from texting you, there’s no opting out of Beltway bellwethers from the Oval Office. But you’re also not charged for them.
“The Communications Act of 1934 established the authority for the President to use certain private sector communications systems for priority communications, such as sending alert and warning messages to the public, during national emergencies,” FEMA wrote. “The Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 prompted the Federal Communications Commission to adopt regulations enabling the wireless industry to participate in the distribution of public alerts and warnings also. The WARN Act further established that the wireless alerting service should allow wireless subscribers the capability of opting out of receiving WEA alerts, other than an alert issued by the President.”
The agency says that in the event of an actual emergency, “a Presidential WEA alert would be issued at the direction of the President and/or his/her designee, and activated by FEMA.’ ”
Not all phones, however, received Wednesday’s alerts.
“Only WEA compatible cell phones that are switched on and within range of an active cell tower, and whose wireless provider participates in WEA will be capable of receiving the test message,” the primer says.
The Emergency Alert System message was longer.
That message will read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System. This system was developed by broadcast and cable operators in voluntary cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and local authorities to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency an official message would have followed the tone alert you heard at the start of this message. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message; others will not. No action is required.”
Prior tests of the alert system were done in November 2011, September 2016, and September 2017 in collaboration with the FCC, broadcasters, and emergency management officials, according to the primer.
It wasn’t immediately clear which cell providers participated Wednesday, but Sprint customer service officials tweeted out a link to the FEMA primer.
Craig Silliman, Verizon’s executive vice president of public policy and general counsel, weighed in on the testing in a statement Wednesday.
“Agencies like the National Weather Service and local governments use these systems to provide life-saving information during and after natural disasters and other emergencies,” Silliman said. “You’ve probably received one of these alerts if you’ve been in the path of severe weather events. Since 2006, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have adopted rules governing these wireless alerts for companies that agree to participate in the program. Verizon has voluntarily participated in the program from its beginning, and nearly all the handsets we sell to customers are capable of providing the alerts.”
Silliman noted that in 2015, “Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a law directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to integrate the federal government’s various alerting systems with one another. FEMA is now testing the various alert systems as part of that integration effort. The test will follow long-established wireless alert guidelines, and FEMA and the FCC have been working with the wireless industry over the past several months to coordinate the test.”
The purpose of the testing is to “assess the readiness to distribute an emergency message nationwide and determine whether improvements are needed,” according to FEMA.
Trump, for his part, on Tuesday retweeted a message from Homeland Security about the testing slated for Wednesday.
That message read, “REMINDER: Tomorrow, 10/3 at 2:18 PM EDT, there will be a nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system, in coordination w/@FCC. You’ll get a message on your phone with a tone & vibration. This is not a text & your phone number is not shared with anyone.”