On September 20, a majority of Americans will receive a text message with the header “Presidential Alert.” This message isn’t political pandering, but rather a test of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) messaging system designed to warn people about disasters — and allow the president to quickly communicate with the American people in the event of emergencies.
The message itself will read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System.” It is basically a mobile version of the same types of tests that are commonplace on TV and radio. It is not the first time that mobile networks have been used for similar messages. For example, Amber Alerts, which warn the public about a missing child, have been sent to cell phones for some time.
However, this is the first time that FEMA has tested its mobile system on the presidential level, and the organization’s website admits that it has some issues that it hopes this test will resolve before it is needed in a real emergency. Unlike other emergency alerts, there is no way to opt out of the presidential alerts. But the system is designed to be used sparingly, so it is unlikely we’ll see them too often.
One thing worth noting is the effort that FEMA has made to prepare the public for this test. In addition to the organization’s press release, the message itself will contain the words “THIS IS A TEST.” FEMA is likely hoping to avoid a repeat of the debacle surrounding Hawaii’s system test, which sent out a false alarm regarding an inbound missile.
While this particular test won’t make mention of any specific emergency, many people probably are not familiar with the presidential alert system, so the precautions are warranted.
Assuming your phone is on and your wireless provider is part of the wireless emergency alert system — more than 100 carriers are — you should see the message appear on your phone at around 2:18 p.m. ET on September 20, 2018. In the event of an actual emergency, FEMA said that it will postpone the test until October 3. As of publication, it has no plans to postpone the test.