Would you like President Donald J. Trump to be able to send you text messages?
Next week, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be testing the Emergency Alert System, which gives the President the ability to “address Americans via text message in the event of a national emergency.” What exactly will constitute a “national emergency” to a man who is pretending that nearly 3,000 people did not die in Hurricane Maria is unclear.
As Talking Points Memo reports, the test alert is slated go out at 2:18 p.m. ET on September 20. (Save your duck and cover drills for another day; it will be labeled as a test.) The message will reach any cell phone that’s within the range of a cell tower.
When Trump was first elected, a flurry of news stories pointed out that with his great power came the authority to send “unblockable” text messages to the whole country. They’re known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs).
Though this does seem like the sort of thing the current occupant of the White House would design — a way to reach even those pesky citizens who refuse to follow him on Twitter — the Emergency Alert System has been sending out these national missives via text since 2013. They’re part of a program that followed Congress’ passage of the 2006 Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act in 2006. And the messages don’t necessarily go to everyone in the country; they’re intended to target “geographically relevant” cell towers, though in a national emergency, well, every tower is geographically relevant.
All that said: It’s still far easier for Trump to hit caps lock and send on a tweet than it is for him to abuse these WEAs. Before the president can hit send on one of these warnings, the message has to go through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System. As New York magazine’s Select All put it back in November 2016:
While FEMA is under control of the executive branch (the head of FEMA is selected by the president, and reports to the Department of Homeland Security), the agency would have a vested interest in not seeing their alert system bent toward, uh, non-emergency ends.
And usage of the system requires more than a bit of technical savvy: “Most people with access take at least two courses in how to use the system.” Meanwhile, Trump still does not know how to use a computer and refers to the iPad as “the flat one.”