Future Tense

Do Not Be Alarmed by the Test of the Presidential Alert Text Message System

We need this badly. Plus, there are layers of bureaucracy to protect you from a middle-of-the-night message from Trump.

A man screams at his cellphone.
An understandable but incorrect response. SIphotography/iStock

When news broke in mid-September that the U.S. government was about to test the presidential alert of the nationwide wireless emergency alert system, the reaction was swift.

“Don’t let Trump anywhere near emergency alerts,” said a CNN Opinion piece. Alyssa Milano tweeted: “I don’t want this. How do we opt out, @fema? I know trump isn’t big on consent but I don’t consent to this.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but opting out is not an option here—nor should it be. You will receive the test message Wednesday, even if you don’t want it—but you should want it. (The test was originally scheduled for September but was moved because of Hurricane Florence.) The U.S. needs a system to alert the public of impending disaster or attack, and there are safeguards in place to ensure that it won’t be abused. After this test, you will not receive a middle-of-the-night alert from President Donald Trump about the size of his nuclear button.

While you may not have heard about it before, this alert system is a long time coming. The mandatory system and tests originate from the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, which mandated the establishment of a national wireless alerting system. The impetus came from the failures to alert citizens during Hurricane Katrina. The National Weather Service issued a warning “PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH” before Katrina made landfall. The messaging was dire and clear, but the NWS lacked the ability to get this message to people’s phones—landline or mobile—as the federal government had no such centralized phone alert system at the time. The city of New Orleans didn’t have a wireless alerting system, either.

After passage of the 2006 law, local governments, states, the U.S. military, and private companies were able to use newer mass notification systems to send messages via text, email, or voice—usually voice. But those wireless alert systems lacked the engineering to alert large numbers of people simultaneously, and the cellular infrastructure was not built at the time to handle the type of volume for sending thousands of messages through the wire. Networks would crash.

Furthermore, with these legacy alerting systems, nothing was integrated, interoperable, or interconnected.  Each county and state and federal agency was purchasing alerting systems in silos, and they didn’t always work with the others—even though the 2006 law had required a national wireless reporting system, not systems.

So President Barack Obama signed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015, which requires these disparate alerting systems to work together, hence the name “integrated.”  This is not an easy task, as the alerting companies are private companies competing for the same business, and the “code” of these alerting systems was not built to communicate with one another. I managed an alerting system at the National Institutes of Health in 2010 that was different from the county we resided and different from the two hospitals across the street from NIH.

The 2015 law covers three kinds of notifications: Amber Alerts for notifications of missing children, alerts of hazardous weather or other emergencies, and presidential alerts. You do not subscribe to these messages, as they are pushed to your phone. You can opt out of all notifications except for “an alert issued by the President.” (There is an option in your iPhone to turn off the Amber and weather alerts, though I find it hard to believe that someone does not want to know that a person has kidnaped a child in her neighborhood or that a tornado is going to destroy her house.) While it’s understandable that this specific president’s Twitter account may have people like Milano a little nervous, the public should want a president to have the authority to alert them in case of an imminent threat, be it a nation-state missile attack or an earthquake and tsunami. Furthermore, the 2015 law directs that the alerting 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.”

Beyond the fact that it would be illegal to use the alert system for something trivial, there are measures to prevent abuse. Most importantly, this isn’t like sending a tweet. The president does not have a button on his cellphone nor in the Oval Office to issue an emergency alert. If the president approves any alert, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will deliver the alert message via the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Even before the president approves an alert to release, he receives a recommendation from White House staff, including members of the National Security Council, on issuing an alert. The NSC Resilience Directorate that supports Trump today has career Department of Homeland Security and FEMA employees, who are veterans of real-world disasters with experience in emergency notifications. Of course, we know that Trump not infrequently disregards advice. But the federal government has a playbook for these alerting situations that places people and procedure in between the president and the alert that is sent to the public. The decision may be the president’s to make, but he doesn’t do it alone.

And we can’t wait until there’s an actual emergency (or until Trump is out of office) to try out the alerts. It’s necessary to make sure information goes out accurately and quickly right when it matters most. IPAWS is the same system that allowed the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to send an erroneous alert of a ballistic missile threat in January, which might not be comforting—but the false alarm demonstrated exactly why we need to test things. It proved that the system functions largely properly, but it also exposed gaps in its ability to reach all people potentially endangered from the threat. As upsetting as it was, the Hawaii experience had an added upside, in that it laid bare a serious problem: a poorly prepared citizenry for crisis. Some people who did receive the alert in Hawaii reacted poorly by either not taking the threat seriously or not knowing what to do when faced with the threat.

This test is not about the current president’s idiosyncrasies. It’s about the future, and it gives us a much-needed opportunity to discuss the need to collectively prepare for potential threats—for example, superstorms from a changing climate—and to look at how we can better communicate both before and after disaster strikes. Delayed upgrades to emergency alert systems have real consequences in life and death situations. On Friday, after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, the Indonesian government issued a warning about the tsunami that has caused more than 1,300 confirmed deaths thus far. After the 2004 earthquake that killed 230,000 people, the U.S. National Science Foundation contributed $3 million for an updated earthquake and tsunami warning system in Indonesia—but it was never finished. Under the old system still in use, it can take up to 45 minutes to issue an alert. The newer system could have provided alerts within three minutes.

Resistance from industry has created delays in implementing upgrades to a modern alert system here at home. CTIA, the association that represents the wireless industry in Washington, stated that recent proposed rules to upgrade wireless alerts “pose technical and economic challenges that render implementation infeasible or premature.” So maybe you can consider your alert on Wednesday a reminder to reach out to your member of Congress and ask them to support more funding and stronger legislation for the fastest alerting system to save lives.