The Presidential Alert System

Bryan Montenegro ‘21

On October 3rd, the federal government performed the first test of a nationwide alert system, sending out emergency alert messages to almost every cell phone in the country. The alert was sent out at 2:18 pm EST, which was soon followed by alerts to the broadcast emergency alert system at 2:20 pm EST. While the alert was sent out on October 3rd, it was originally scheduled for September 20th, but was postponed due to Hurricane Florence.

These systems are part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) protocols, which send messages out in order to inform people of severe threats that may be happening near them. There are alert systems similar to the Presidential Alert System, such as the National Weather Service (NWS) that alerts about extreme weather.Additionally,  there is also the America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) alert program that sends out messages in the most serious child-abduction cases.

While the NWS and AMBER alerts have been implemented for some years, the Presidential Alert System has recently been added to this roster. According to ABC News, the major difference between the NWS/AMBER alerts and the Presidential Alert System is “the ‘Presidential Alert’ would be triggered if the president, or another authorized official, decides there is ‘public peril’ that merits a national notification.” The Presidential Alert System will be one of the first acts taken when there is a state of emergency that concerns the whole country.

As soon as the alert was sent out, a loud alert was sent to most phones throughout the country, with the following message: “Presidential Alert: This is a test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” The ringtone before the message is similar to those from the NWS and AMBER alerts. While many people have several questions about the Presidential Alert System, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has stated that these types of alerts do not depend on the network carrier or affect phone bills at all. FEMA has also stated that while the NWS/AMBER systems offer the options to turn the alarm off, the Presidential Alert does not. For more information on these types of alerts, FEMA has posted a Q&A section on their website. One key factor that FEMA has left on their Q&A is that, according to ABC News, “The Department of Homeland Security won’t be tracking the performance of the alert but an official said they would ask DHS and FEMA employees to report when they receive it.” While this was the first test of the new Presidential Alert System, the federal government has stated that it will test this system every three years.