The VICE Guide to Right Now

FEMA Is Testing Presidential Phone Alerts from Trump You Can't Opt Out Of

The "presidential alerts" work just like tornado and flood warnings, and they'll reach nearly every cell phone in America.

by Drew Schwartz
Sep 17 2018, 5:18pm

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Starting next month, Donald Trump is going to be able to fire off mass texts to most of the country using FEMA's emergency alert system, a potential disaster that could be about as catastrophic as, you know, the actual disasters he's supposed to be warning us about.

On October 3, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will test out the alert system, which will allow Trump to blast nearly every cell phone in America with a customized message, the Hill reports. The "presidential alerts" will work just like those flash flood or missing children warnings, meaning you'll hear that extremely loud siren and feel your phone vibrate before seeing whatever it is Trump decided to send off—and there's no way to opt out of it.

Select All pointed out back in 2016 that Trump's had the ability to use Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) since he was elected, but this is the first time the system will be tested. Still, it's not as if he can just fire off whatever he wants to say like he seems to do on Twitter. By law, FEMA's WEA system prohibits the agency (and, by extension, Trump) from sending any message "that does not relate to a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster or threat to public safety." Plus, according to Select All, whatever he wants to send out has to go through FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, so Trump's messages will ostensibly have to be approved before they reach your phone.

"Broadcast-based emergency alert systems... have remained professional and impartial over decades," Tim Groeling, a communications professor at UCLA, told NBC News. "A system like this seems necessary in an era where most people are disconnected from 'live' media like radio and television."

More than 100 major carriers in the US are on board with the new alert system, so if your phone is turned on and in range of a cell tower on October 3 at 2:18 PM EDT, you'll almost certainly get the test warning. It'll be headed "Presidential Alert," followed by a brief, innocuous message: "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."

From then on, though, there's no telling what creativity Trump might lend to his presidential alerts. Perhaps we should all brace ourselves to be bombarded with cell phone warnings about "tremendous big and tremendously wet" storms from here on out.

Update (9/17): On Monday, FEMA postponed the test from September 20 to October 3 "due to the ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence." This post has been updated to reflect the correct date.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

Donald Trump
cell phones
Natural Disasters
emergency alerts