On Wednesday afternoon, nearly every smart phone in America will blare and vibrate with an emergency alert – the first ever test of the national Presidential Alert system.
The Presidential Alert is similar to the state-level systems that let police and local authorities send out AMBER Alerts and weather warnings. The biggest difference is scale. The nationwide system is designed to blast a message to all 225 million smart phones in the United States – reaching about 75% of the population.
News of the Presidential Alert test drew almost immediate criticism on some corners of social media – with some people vowing to turn off their phones, believing wrongly that they will be a captive audience of President Donald Trump. Some even mused – incorrectly – that the system would allow him to tweet to every American.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and experts say the Presidential Alert will not be Trump’s personal megaphone to America. Instead, they argue, it’s a necessary 21st-century update to the Emergency Alert System that has for decades allowed the president to authorize broadcasts on every television and radio in the country in the event of a national emergency.
Here’s what you need to know about Wednesday’s test of the Presidential Alert system.
When will the Presidential Alert test happen and what will it say?
At 2:18 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Oct. 3, FEMA will send out the first message testing the new nationwide presidential-level Wireless Emergency Alert. It will go to every smart phone in the United States that is turned on and within range of a cell tower. There is no opt-out. Originally scheduled for Sept. 20, the test was rescheduled for Oct. 3 due to Hurricane Florence.
The Presidential Alert to phones will say:
The message to smart phones will be followed by an Emergency Alert System message broadcast on every TV and radio at 2:20 p.m. ET. That will feature a voice that says:
In the event of an actual emergency, the Presidential Alert will include information about the emergency and instructions for how to respond and stay safe.
What is the Presidential Alert system and how does it work?
The Presidential Alert – also known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) – is a new take on the country’s existing emergency warning systems.
FEMA said the test is meant to assess the readiness to distribute an emergency message nationwide and determine whether there are improvements to be made.
Currently every American who owns a smart phone – about 75% of the population – is expected to receive the test alert. FEMA is hoping the test will allow officials to find a way to reach more people, including those who do not have access to smartphones. The alerts will be similar to the ones for extreme weather or AMBER Alerts, which feature a loud alarm followed by vibration. The alert will last around one minute, and no action is required, FEMA said.
Only Wireless Emergency Alert-compatible cellphones that are switched on and within range of an active cell tower will be capable of receiving the test alert. There are 100 mobile carriers participating, including the largest providers.
The clear difference between a Wireless Emergency Alert and a text message is the special, loud tone and a vibration that are both repeated twice, according to FEMA. A distinctive Wireless Emergency Alert message dialogue box will also appear on phones home screens.
The President of the United States will have sole responsibility for determining when the national-level Emergency Alert System will be activated, but FEMA will be responsible for tests and exercises of the system.
Will President Trump be able to personally message every phone in America?
In short, no.
Because it has been dubbed a Presidential Alert, some have claimed that Trump himself will be sending out a personalized message.
However, FEMA said the alert system meant to be used in case of an emergency and Wednesday’s Presidential Alert will only feature a brief text pertaining directly the test.
There is also a law prohibiting Trump or any president from abusing the system. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 specifically states that the warning system must only be used to to alert the public of a potential disaster, so if Trump were to use the presidential alert for anything other than it’s intended use, he would be breaking the law.
“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.” the act states.
The process is also a lot more complex than simply drafting a tweet and hitting send. There are very specific guidelines for what the message must contain and the President himself will not draft the message, he will simply authorize a staff member to send it out on his behalf, according to FEMA.
“The message is not coming directly from the President,” a FEMA spokesman tells TIME. “The message is going to be sent on behalf of the president. The president or anyone that he designates will be advised by the staff to activate the warning and then issue it to the public, at that time the designee would contact FEMA at our operations center and tell us to activate the warning.”
Why are people threatening to turn off their phones on Wednesday?
Trump’s messages to his 54.8 million followers on Twitter are often brash and full of his own opinions. The misconception that the customized message will be similar to his tweets has some people online protesting the scheduled alert, even saying they’ll turn their phones off to avoid receiving the Presidential Alert.
The #Godark103 is being used on Twitter by some who are planning to protest the Presidential Alert by shutting off their phones.
We don’t need presidential alerts! We already have public emergency alert messaging. This is not necessary! We should be able to opt out of these messages. Wth would he have to say that local agencies can’t. No!
— JoAnn (@JoAnnNYNY) September 15, 2018
I will also #GoDark103 to avoid this unblock-able Presidential Alert test. Currently at an average of 7.6 lies a day how are we to know that any alert he issues is an actual emergency? For a real President this would be important, but not this #Drumpf.
— DG Ojan (@Demanicon) September 18, 2018
Tim Groeling, a professor of communication studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, says that he believes the Presidential Alert system is an inevitable extension of the existing emergency alert systems. She says that the #Godark103 hashtag on Twitter has more to do with some people’s aversion to Trump than any reasonable fear of the alert being abused.
“The amount of paranoia that people are engaged in on this is kind of shocking for something that is a natural extension of the national broadcast system in a situation where people aren’t consuming live media,” Groeling tells TIME.
“If Trump was going to abuse this system, he could of already been abusing the television one, which has been in force since he took office.
“I think people’s telephones are very personal devices, they carry them with them all the time, so the level of concern is higher. But, on the flip side of that, if there is an earthquake or any other disaster, it is a good medium to let people know, because in those situations seconds do count.”
Why is the Presidential Alert system important?
FEMA says the nationwide test will provide FEMA with valuable information on the government’s ability to distribute a national emergency message.
The IPAWS Modernization Act, made law in 2016, requires FEMA to conduct at least one nationwide test every three years. According to FEMA, the nationwide test are to help ensure under all conditions that the President, federal agencies and state, local and tribal governments can alert and warn the civilian population in areas endangered by natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters and threats to public safety.