Unstoppable Messages from the President, Now Coming to Your Smart Phone!


Emergency Broadcast System
U.S. Government

I un-fondly remember annoying Emergency Broadcast System tests interrupting my childhood television shows back in the days when such an intrusion could mean that you'd missed the punch line or even a chunk of plot. The annoying shriek and repeated "if this had been an actual emergency …" could drive my short-tempered self into a simmering rage at a tender age. What I didn't know until recently (how could I miss this?) is that the equivalent exists for smart phones, and you can't escape those damned Wireless Emergency Alerts, either.

According to the Federal Communications Commission:

WEA (formerly known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN)) is a public safety system that allows customers who own certain wireless phone models and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. The technology ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services. WEA was established pursuant to the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act.

Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable

The Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act passed in 2006, shoehorned into the Safe Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006 (SAFE Act).

Wireless providers don't have to participate, but all of the big ones have fully opted in, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel and Verizon. You can find a list of participants here (XLS).

If your provider has opted in, is there any way for you to opt out? Well … A little. Says the FCC:

Alerts from WEA cover only critical emergency situations. Consumers will receive only three types of alerts:

  1. Alerts issued by the President
  2. Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
  3. Amber Alerts

Participating carriers may allow subscribers to block all but Presidential alerts.

One does not muzzle the emperor, of course.

Not all phones are yet equipped to receive the Wireless Emergency Alerts and their "unique attention signal and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities," but you can count on receiving inescapable presidential missives within an upgrade or two.