In a few hours, millions of Americans will get a test emergency “Presidential Alert” message sent to their phone — a simulation in case the president ever needs to reach to entire country in a national emergency.
At 2:18pm ET, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will send a short alert, saying: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” A few minutes later, televisions and radio broadcasts will briefly suspend and a similar message will run.
The test was originally scheduled for mid-September but was delayed until Wednesday after Hurricane Florence hit the east coast.
This will be the first time the government has conducted a nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, according to a FEMA advisory.
Emergency warnings used to be confined to television and radio broadcasts, sounding out that familiar terrifying high-pitch tone. But as consumers moved away from televisions and radio to mobile devices that are always with us, the government began working on a system to get emergency alerts in our hands.
Since it was devised in 2006 under the Bush administration, the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) has slowly rolled out across the U.S. to form a new state-of-the-art emergency alert system. Like the legacy system, the WEA is designed to alert Americans to bad weather and missing children at a local level directly to your phone.
But now FEMA wants to test a third alert — the presidential alert — which will send a message to every switched-on phone with cell service across the U.S. at the same time.
This won’t be a text message sent to your phone, experts say. Instead of sending text messages that would flood the networks, the alerts are sent directly over the cellular network.
Although today is a test, any future presidential alert can be sent solely at the discretion of the president and can be issued for any reason. And, unlike other alerts, Americans cannot opt-out of receiving a presidential alert.
Some have expressed concern that the system could be abused for political reasons. Others worry that the system could be hacked.
Tom Crane, an expert in emergency management at Everbridge, a critical communications provider, told TechCrunch that the WEA has “extra safeguards” in place before sending an alert. An authorized user has to enter a complex password that has two elements — a private key and a keystore password — which are unique for each alerting authority.
“It’s not as easy as ‘someone left their computer unattended so i’m going to send a Wireless Emergency Alert’,” he said.
The emergency alert system is far from perfect. Earlier this year, panic spread on Hawaii after an erroneous alert warned residents of a “ballistic missile threat inbound.” The message said, “this is not a drill.” The false warning was amid the height of tensions between the US and North Korea, which at the time was regularly test-firing rockets used for its nuclear missile program.