Cellphones across the country are set to buzz at 2:18 p.m. EDT on Wednesday in the first test of a wireless emergency alert system designed to allow the president to warn citizens of grave threats to the nation, such as terrorist attacks, pandemics, or invasions.* Over 30 minutes, cell towers will transmit a message to approximately 225 million people reading, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” There will also be a concurrent test of the Emergency Alert System, which transmits messages over television and radio. The test was originally scheduled for September, but it had to be postponed because of Hurricane Florence.
Though cellphone users are able to turn off AMBER and emergency weather alerts, federal law dictates that you cannot opt out of the presidential emergency system. However, you can try turning your phone off this afternoon if you really don’t want to participate in the test. Federal officials estimate that one-quarter of the nation’s cellphones will not receive the alert on Wednesday because they are either turned off or out of range of a cell tower.
Congress gave the president the power to use national communication systems during emergencies with the passage of the Communications Act of 1934. In 2006, lawmakers directed the Federal Communications Commission to work with the wireless industry to devise a way to send emergency notifications. The AMBER and weather alerts you occasionally see on your phone are a result of that work.
There little need to worry, though, that President Trump will apply his impulsive Twitter habits to this powerful alert system. The president doesn’t directly send out the messages, but rather must direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates the system, to do so. President Obama also signed a law in 2016 dictating that the 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,” except in the rare case of testing.
These safeguards are little comfort to three New York residents who sued the federal government last week in an attempt to stop Wednesday’s test. “Without more specific definitions…officials—including President Trump—are free to define ‘act of terrorism’ and ‘threat to public safety’ as they see fit, potentially broadcasting arbitrary, biased, irrational and/or content-based messages to hundreds of millions of people,” the suit reads. The plaintiffs also assert that they “don’t wish to receive text messages, or messages of any kind, on any topic or subject, from Defendant Trump.”
*Correction, Oct. 3, 2018: This post misstated the text would go out at 2:18 Eastern Standard Time. It is Eastern Daylight Time.