At 1:18 p.m. CST on Oct. 3, most smartphone users in the U.S. can expect to receive a test alert message from President Donald Trump. Many phone carriers, including major ones like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, are participating in the testing. The President has the ability to alert the public in situations of any type of national emergency under the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. According to FEMA, there is no way to opt out of presidential alerts if you use one of the phone carriers participating.
“I think alert systems are good, people being informed of emergencies is a necessity,” said first-year student Sterling McTee.
The testing of this presidential alert system was planned for Sept. 20, but was pushed back due to response efforts for Hurricane Florence. The EAS has allowed for two other types of alerts: warnings of imminent threats such as extreme weather emergencies and Amber Alerts.
“The alerts are very important and it’s ridiculous that there are people who wish to opt out of them,” said first-year student Nick Irwin. “For Amber Alerts at least, it’s your duty to be aware of that.”
There are restrictions in place as to what the President can send alerts for. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 serves as a directive for the types of alerts that can be sent out through the FEMA system. The bill states that the warning system can not be used for anything that is not a natural or man-made disaster, act of terrorism, other threat to public safety or necessary test. For some, this quells potential fears of Trump abusing his new power.
“It can be a good thing because sometimes there are things the President would know about that the whole nation needs to hear,” McTee said. “Hopefully it doesn’t turn into something that could be abused and it’s done right. Maybe there’s someone that has a little more experience in emergency management than our President and can advise him on that kind of thing.”
There has previously been a mishap with the FEMA alerts. The alerts caused panic in Hawaii this January when citizens received a warning of an incoming ballistic missile. This was accidentally sent out and there was no threat, but the message had specifically warned them it was not a drill. It took 38 minutes for a follow up message to be sent informing Hawaiians that there was no missile. This incident was attributed to a miscommunication during a drill and led to the resignation of Hawaii’s emergency management administrator.
These alerts have typically been sent out in English, but according to FEMA, enhancements will be made in 2019 to allow Spanish-language WEA alert messages. The 2017 United States Census states that around 13 percent of citizens speak Spanish in their homes. Many of these Spanish-speaking citizens can also speak English, but this will allow for those citizens who can not to also be notified.
Although this will be the first time a president has sent these alerts, many have had the opportunity. The Communications Act of 1934 gave presidents the authority to send alert and warning messages to the public during national emergency.
“The President has sole responsibility for determining when the national-level EAS will be activated,” states FEMA’s website.
Unlike Amber Alerts and imminent threat warnings, the presidential alerts can not be opted out of. Since it is only to be used in emergencies.It is unclear how often the president will be using his power, but the Oct. 3 testing will be the nation’s first look at it.