Nationwide 'Presidential Alert' Texts: Not the Best Idea

Most of us got a "presidential alert" text today. Is that something we really want?


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

Hundreds of millions of Americans received a "Presidential Alert" on their cell phone today. Specifying that "no action is needed," the message explained that the alert was "A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Communications Commission originally scheduled the test for September, but they pushed it back due to Hurricane Florence.

So what was the point? The message you likely received (unless you turned your phone off) was the first ever nationwide test of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. It's the same system that sends out Amber Alerts (for missing children) and weather warnings. While those can be turned off, the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network Act stipulates that the "Presidential Alert" cannot.

FEMA didn't force wireless carriers to participate, but as NBC News notes, most of them did anyway.

The test seemed to go off without a hitch. But that doesn't mean it was a good idea.

No, President Donald Trump is probably not going to use the alert to launch into crazed rants like he does on Twitter. And this isn't as new as it may seem: The technology has been around since 2012. Still, it's a bit unsettling to know that the federal government can reach you whenever it wants—and perfectly reasonable to wonder whether in 30 years we'll be getting texts from the government about more than just national emergencies.

It's also worth noting that such emergency alert systems are not infallible. In January, the Hawaiian islands were thrown into a state of panic when a worker accidentally sent out a statewide ballistic missile warning.

Finally, FEMA doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to, well, anything. Maybe, just maybe, putting the oft-maligned federal agency in charge of a nationwide emergency alert system isn't the best idea.

NEXT: New Zealand Law Is an Affront to Travelers' Privacy, but Things Aren't Much Better Here

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. No, President Donald Trump is probably not going to use the alert to launch into crazed rants like he does on Twitter.

    Oh, REALLY?!

    1. Trump should use this to send a dick pic to every American on his last day of office.

  2. Yawn. Also, first!

    1. Damnit Rich

      1. That’s because *I* was alerted by WEA.

        *** polishes nails on shirt ***

        1. Great, Rich. Now I am picturing you walking away like Peggy Bundy.

  3. Still less annoying than that shitty U2 album that Apple thought everyone would love to have included on their new phone for some weird reason.

    1. C’mon. Apple fanboys deserve such aggravation. So do Prius owners, who should have their radio tuned to U2 at the factory.

      1. They probably already have that on Prius’. They have a feature that won’t allow you to park in front of a big box store.

        Do you even artisenal, brah?

        1. I use only organic, locally sourced gasoline.

          1. For your car’s sake, I hope that’s non-GMO gasoline

          2. Technically all gasoline is organic.

            Organic=carbon chemistry.

            Gasoline is a hydrocarbon. Hmm.

            1. So you’re the type of guy that people don’t invite to parties, I take it

              1. And they don’t come to my parties either, I can’t figure it out.

              2. Isn’t this a Douglas Adams joke?

          3. Fossil fuel use is aggression.

  4. Man, why did Trump set up this system? Probably because he’s a Nazi or something, right?

    1. Obama signed it into law. So not a Nazi, a Commie.

      1. Actually, I think it might have been George W. Bush who signed it into law way back in 2007.

    2. “Former President Barack Obama signed a law in 2016 requiring FEMA to create a system allowing the president to send cellphone alerts regarding public safety emergencies.”


      1. Yup. I turned off my Amber alert setting, so I didnt receive presidential alert message either.

        1. Are you sure? My S8 says that I can’t turn them off.


          1. I have iphone not galaxy.

        2. You didn’t receive it because your carrier didn’t participate. You can’t turn off the Presidential level alerts, only the other ones.

          1. Also because you are using a Jitterbug.

          2. Verizon participated.

            My igoring all updates since I got the phone does wonders for battery level stability, etc.

      2. Wow, the New York Post really spent a lot of time fact checking before they went to press.


    3. Already have had two Progressive friends post to facebook about how Trump is behind these alerts.

      As far as I can tell, Trump has had zero involvement in the whole thing.

  5. “Still, it’s a bit unsettling to know that the federal government can reach you whenever it wants?”

    Nope; only when the phone is on.

    1. And when the feds make auto-on mandatory?

      1. Take the battery out. 🙂

        1. And when the feds make permabattery mandatory?

          1. Faraday cadge.

            1. And when the feds make Farady cages illegal?

              1. Keep your phone in a lead box.

                1. Alright, you win.

                2. We’ll just make it illegal for your phone to lose contact with a cellphone tower.

                3. We’ll just make it illegal for your phone to lose contact with a cellphone tower.

            2. Wait, Faraday was a falconer?

        2. How many phone can you do that on anymore?

      2. Unicorn Abattoir|10.3.18 @ 3:36PM|#
        “And when the feds make auto-on mandatory?
        What phone? I have a land line if it comes to that.

        1. Sat phones need not apply.

    2. Nope; only when the phone is on.

      On, present, and within reception range. The President can feel free to text me all he likes when my phone is sitting off at home. Just like everyone else.

      1. “On, present, and within reception range. The President can feel free to text me all he likes when my phone is sitting off at home. Just like everyone else.”
        And you are free to ignore it.

  6. phished by the feds.

  7. I have been getting local EAS alerts for a while mostly for missing kids and old people, and flooding after every heavy rainstorm. Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the more we get, the more they will be ignored

  8. Yeah, this doesn’t bother me. Given that, upon occasion, shit does happen, its not a bad idea to have a way to communicate instantly with the masses. If Trump starts broadcasting dick pics, however, we should reconsider.

    1. Then the masses should be able to opt in/out and take their chances.

      1. That would require the consideration of liberty.

      2. I wholly agree. Folks should be able to opt out of public warnings…with the caveat that they then ALSO opt out of putting the life of a first responder at risk when they (inevitably) call for help. Go for it! I’m all for Darwinian population reduction…

        1. Christ man. Do you pay attention to these warnings?

          I don’t know where you live but when I had them on I got warnings for missing kids or weather events in places *200 miles away* every few days. They’re shite. And, frankly, unless you live in tornado alley then you’re not getting a public emergency that doesn’t give you multiple days of warning.

          Hell, here we get flash flooding – and we still knew a week in advance that we were going to get the rain that triggers it.

        2. ^ no Libertarian here.

          You must follow all nanny state rules or your tax dollars applied to public safety will not allow your rescue.

          1. IQPointsmatter, that is.

    2. Combine them and issue an Amber Alert for Hurricane Dick Pic

      1. You know who else had an Amber Alert set up?

        1. Ugh, that was a slow pitch, y’all. The correct answer is Johnny Depp.

          1. Jesse Eisenberg.

    3. operation yeti mushroom.

    4. its not a bad idea to have a way to communicate instantly with the masses

      On a national scale? Why?

      1. I’m assuming that this was just the test, that ultimately it can be tailored to specific regions without having states or localities doing it in 50 different ways. But I could be wrong, maybe all messages will always go out nationally. Like I care if there’s a category 5 twitstorm heading for the northeast.

      2. Attention assholes, we’re being nuked. Y’all’s fucked.

  9. This is a very cranky article that seems to accomplish little except bash the incompetents at FEMA yet again.

    1. Look, they failed to deliver water to every single Puerto Rican for *over a year* and the Puerto Rican government and all of its people were powerless to stop them.

      1. Thank you, mad.casual! Apparently folks don’t understand that FEMA does NOT go in and “take over” command and control of a disaster. The EM adage is that “disasters begin and end at the local level.”
        Local governments request aid through mutual aid agreements to other local governments, then they elevate to the state (or territory, in this case) if they can’t access what they need. If the state/territory is overwhelmed, the state then requests aid from FEMA and other federal agencies. FEMA organizes the aid from multiple federal agencies and pushes it to the state. That’s their ONLY job during response: to organize/coordinate federal aid based on state requests. Then it’s on the state/territory to get it to local levels where it’s distributed.
        99.9% of complaints you see in the media that FEMA screwed up are really that states/local governments/NGOs screwed up, but I know it’s easier to just be paranoid and blame the Federal government. Lazy/group thinking >leads to> broad generalizations >that lead to> people feeling validated by praise from other ignorant (yet strongly-opinionated) people when they play arm-chair quarterback.
        Rather than just sitting around bitching about things you know nothing about, how about you folks get out there and DO something, like volunteering for your local Community Emergency Response Team? Then let FEMA know if you have any better ideas on how to get the job done.

        1. But that implies that you can have self-organizing local systems. What do you think joey is, a libertarian?

          1. Yes, you are 100% right. Local organization was lacking and corruption was rampant in PR after Maria. You’ve made my point. Not FEMA’s fault. Or were they SUPPOSED to go in and take over? No?

            Again, people, get off your backsides and go get involved in your community to have a voice that matters, not just in an inane comments section. Or continue the hypocrisy of bitching about a problem you don’t ACTUALLY care enough about to invest any of your own time in to fix. Your choice.

        2. FEMA does NOT go in and “take over” command and control of a disaster.

          Except when they do.

          1. Specific example from the last 10 years, please. Don’t bring Katrina into this because the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 redefined FEMA’s roles and responsibilities (as well as the Sandy recovery Act of 2013, but less so on the Response side of the house). Just like any other decent organization, lessons learned are integrated into new ways of doing business. Is the system perfect? No. But I ask you, is ANY system perfect?

            The biggest question to ask is: are they happy clinging to doing things “the way they’ve always been done” or do they evolve when they run into systemic problems? The answer is the latter, and I’m not sure how any reasonable person can expect more than that…unless they just want to play the blame game and not use reason at all.

  10. I just figured the Donald pressed a shiny red button and moved on with my life.

    1. I’m just glad he didn’t text “Send nudes”

      1. Or “Send Nukes”…

        1. That would be worse

        2. Or “Send Nuvfefe”…

  11. “FEMA didn’t force wireless carriers to participate, but as NBC News notes, most of them did anyway.”

    But it would be, as the expression goes, *very unfortunate* if they didn’t give their voluntary cooperation.

    When I get a Presidential alert, it better be a nuclear war or a bacterial bomb set off by terrorists, and not a reminder to pay my taxes or stay on the lookout for some kid in the middle of a custody dispute.

    1. Or maybe a reminder to pay my taxes before the radiations finishes me off.

      1. You need to sign yourself up for “papal texts”. They’re all in Latin so you won’t get upset, because you can’t read them.

        1. I’ll just put them through Google Translate.

          1. You’re a real glutton for punishment

          2. “Francis sings, ‘Tractors, Turnip, Buttocks!'”

            1. Don’t you mean “FFFFrancis”, you boof?

    2. One of my favorite lines from basically every police procedural:

      “Trust us, you want, to cooperate voluntarily!”

    3. Dude, it will be an alert for a bacterial bomb set off in a city on the other side of the country from you.

      And you’d have seen it reported on cable news an hour before they got around to sending out the alert.

  12. Its for national emergencies.

    Anyway, turn off your cell phone Amber Alert nonsense alert and you wont get a presidential alert.

    1. Not universally true. I’ve had Amber alerts off from the start with this phone, but I got the damn thing any.
      At a guess it varies by state and/or service provider.

    2. Reading is tough.

    3. Nope. I have the amber alert stuff off, but I got this Presidential Alert message. Which just goes to show that Trump ranks higher than kidnapped children.

      1. iPhone. Amber alert off. No presidential alert.

        Anecdotes all around.

        Suck it!

        1. I looked again and iphone also allows you to turn off government emergency alerts, which I turned off when I got the cell.

          Check your phones losers!

          1. Well, some warning about an imminent tornado sounds useful. I just wasn’t expecting a rollout of the Trump Tweet Network.

            1. They have weather apps from NOAA or weather channel or whatever.

              I dont watch the news so I certainly dont want the government sending bullshit they think is important to my cell phone.

              If the internet goes out, I will be fairly sure that the World is coming to an end. Or Randy Marsh has overlogged it.

            2. It was the Obama Tweet Network for which Trump now has the password.

              1. I figure that is “1234” or “password”

            3. ” I just wasn’t expecting a rollout of the Trump Tweet Network.”

              But I was hoping!

        2. “Unlike emergency alerts and Amber alerts, these presidential alerts cannot be turned off, according to FEMA.”


          Not anecdote, sourced.

          “Unfortunately, they can’t?officially. Though you can turn off Amber and other emergency alerts in iOS and Android, those settings won’t affect your ability to receive this test.”


          1. I never got the alert. I have amber alerts and gov emergency alerts turned off.

            So false FEMA propaganda. Big surprise.

    4. Did you read the article? Did you miss this?

      It’s the same system that sends out Amber Alerts (for missing children) and weather warnings. While those can be turned off, the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network Act stipulates that the “Presidential Alert” cannot.

      1. I never received the presdential message today.

        I have ‘Amber Alerts’ turned off.
        I have ‘Emergency Messages’ turned off.
        I dont update my cell phone software.

        That tells me that this supposed mandatory alert was anything but.

        The propaganda people were wrong again…if you can believe that.

    5. There are multiple types of alerts.

      Alerts issued by the President of the United States

      Alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, issued in two different categories: extreme threats and severe threats

      Severe weather

      AMBER Alerts

      You have to disable each one individually.

      1. Nope.

        I never received the alert.

        As I said multiple times, turned off amber alerts and gov emergency message settings on iPhone and dont update phone.


    I don’t need, and don’t want a presidential alert on my cell phone. What can the president possibly tell me that I won’t get from a dozen other sources?

    Very sad.

  14. When I saw “Presidential Alert” I was hoping Trump had ordered a drone strike on the NYTs

    1. When SIV registers an amber alert, it’s because he saw one of his hens flash some leg.

  15. I have an old “basic” phone and I did not get a text! Ha! Take that fedgov.

    1. Remind me not to go on your lawn

    2. Remind me not to go on your lawn

    3. This was for cell phones, not your bakelite rotary dial with the coil cord.

  16. Most of us got a “presidential alert” text today. Is that something we really want?

    Obama wanted it, so we got it.

    1. I like this:

      That means Trump, whose use of Twitter has revolutionized White House communications, can’t use it to send personal messages.

      Remember when the Obama administration was glowingly referred to in the media as “The social networking president” and how he “got” social media? I’m guessing Trump successfully killed that meme, just like Obama killed the anti-war movement.

      1. The networks dumped Cindy Sheehan and the daily death count like a hot potato when Obamao got in.

      2. You’re Team Red if you point out hypocrisy. That’s whataboutism or some other made-up word

        1. I just noticed in my office how many people groaned about Trump when the text message came in. I honestly don’t care that much about a national alert system on the phones. Whether it’ll be of any real use waits to be seen, but there’s this idea that this whole thing is the brainchild of Donald Trump and therefore it must be #Resisted.

          1. Have your co-workers ever considered writing for Reason?


            2. I get a Christmas card from Reason for all the web traffic from trolls that tries to hihnfect my comments.

    2. That information will require a rewrite of the article, I’m guessing.

    3. I wonder if people with Obamaphones received it?

    1. Laugh Off Lawns?

  17. They should tie it to Trump’s twitter feed.

    1. I was hoping for:
      “Yep. Still your President.”

  18. It lit up my FB feed with posts from my liberal friends having a cow.

    I’ll say the same thing here as I said to them.

    If only people were more bother with the idea of the feds collecting your text messages than sending you one.

  19. If Trump starts tweeting to my phone I’m going back to my old feature phone.

    1. Having the president tweet to your phone is a human right.

      1. And the right to print those tweets out onto tissue to wipe my butt with is guaranteed under the Tenth Amendment!

  20. Are you forgetting how vital the Emergency Broadcast System was on 9/11?

    Oh wait, never mind…

    1. That’s a good point… did people in the New York area get anything?

      1. Yes

        1. Well, problem solved then. Great success.

  21. “If this had been an actual emergency, the Apocalypse would already be at your doorstep and the President would be in his underground shelter.”

    1. the Apocalypse would already be at your doorstep

      That’s a bit more favorable than the situations I envision getting the text.

      1. So the alert is self-defeating; the ones alerted are the zombies?

      2. You have to admit, the CDC campaign “If you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse, you’re ready for anything” back in 2012 (during the Walking Dead craze before it sucked) was clever AF.


  22. “While everyone was peddling phony conspiracy theories, China launched its nukes. Sad. Anyway, everyone seek shelter if you have any. Me personally, I’m going to stand on top of #TrumpTower flipping off the missiles as they arrive, survivors be sure to full obedience to #MikePence who is in a secure location. #Bummer.”

  23. Um, did anyone else pick up on the fact that it took FEMA 12 years to send out a text message?

    1. Be fair – it was only 6 years. They instituted this level of capability in 2012.

  24. I think having (and testing) this capability is a good thing.

    The problem would be in too many ‘Presidential Notifications’, hectoring us a’la Big Brother….

  25. My wife and I were in a theater, watching “A Simple Favor” (relatively recommended). Both of our phones, and probably most others, were turned to “Silent (Vibrate)”. Every phone in the theater went off, including ours. Mine went off a second time because apparently I didn’t acknowledge receipt correctly.


    1. Mine never got alert.

  26. Millennial (who doesn’t know know anything about anything) response: “Like, ohhhh, myyyy, gawd. Like, when I got this alert, I like thought, what? I have to hit ‘ok’? What an inconvenience! I was, like suuuuper-busy scrolling through tweets from the 15,000 random, unimportant people that I follow, and I had to, like, actually be contacted by a program that could save my life someday? Whoa, brah, no can do. I’m, like, TOTALLY offended that you’d even ask. I think I’ll post a selfie of me with a frownie face to my Insta account.”

    Mid-30s (who doesn’t know anything about Emergency Management) response: “I had to deal with this text coming in on all FIVE of my phones. I’m way too busy with my internet start-up company and half-caff-Starbucks (from their SUPER secret menu) to do any research on who will actually use this system in an emergency, but my social media all told me that it’ll be Trump posting dick pics and that it’s just another way for the government to sneak into my stuff. #IDontReadMyUserAgreements #IBelieveEverythingIReadOnTwitter #CheckMeOut #ItsAllAboutMe #MyOpinionCounts #ILoveHashtagsWayTooMuch”

    1. And let’s not forget:

      Old conspiracy theorist/nutbag (who thinks they know everything about everything) response: “You know, THEY SAY that this Presidential Alert system is going to lead to brain cancer that is orchestrated by the government as a way to control the population, especially knowing that Trump fella. Back in the day, the government couldn’t just reach through your phone to control you. It’s all because the government’s finally figured out that alien technology they’ve been hiding since the 50s. I tell you, soon, VERY soon, we are all going to need to take up arms against that government in the name of Liberty.”

      Ugh, STOP.

  27. Its not that the Presidential alert is a bad idea (I mean, it is – there’s nothing, literally nothing, that the President could send out that wouldn’t be covered by any of the lower level alerts already) (yes, that even includes nuclear war as the systems for that were put in place decades ago) but that its the one level where there’s no opt-out.

    I’ve opted out of every other level of alert – even weather alerts as NOAA seems to think that Yuma and Phoenix are right next to each other and a fucking dust storm warning for an area 3+ hours away has any bearing on where I’m at – but I still get to get woken up this afternoon by this stupid test.

    1. I never got any alert.

    2. Did you know that there are a few scenarios that are considered low probably/high risk? Meaning: unlikely to happen, but if they do, they’ll have devastating affects on large segments of the population (not necessarily just in one region). Think EMP or Severe Geomagnetic Disturbance-type scenarios. In those cases, seconds matter to get a message out.

      Say the Space Weather Center figures out that there’s been a huge Geostorm that will arrive in 18 minutes and will knock out power to the most of the daylight side of the globe for up to a few weeks. They can either spend those minutes disseminating the info to local governments and other media (who may or may not get it out before communications are interrupted, because no system works perfectly) or straight to the public. Those systems that were in place for nuclear war decades ago? Um, they’re old (and also rely on information to trickle down to local levels to activate emergency sirens and the Emergency Broadcast System). Is there something inherently wrong with updating a system to use current technology?

      1. THAT’S what this alert system is for. The likelihood of them ever using it is extremely low (we all hope, and no, it’s not a rant forum for any present/future president), but they now have another tool in their pocket, just in case. We all know what would happen if they HAD the capability to get a message out, but went through normal channels and the message didn’t make it out in time…and no one knew what was happening for a couple of weeks in the dark. When the power came back on, people would be FURIOUS: “WHY didn’t you tell us??? It’s all your fault!!!” So, reasonable question: are they damned if they do and damned if they don’t?

  28. No, President Donald Trump is probably not going to use the alert to launch into crazed rants like he does on Twitter.

    Christ, that might actually make it worthwhile.

  29. I didn’t get anything.

  30. I was hoping to find an intelligent discussion of this topic on Reason, but all I find is a bunch of childish wisecracks.

    This is NOT Trump’s Presidential Alert System. It was not created by Trump. I haven’t watched a televised news show or picked up a print edition of a daily newspaper in decades. The Presidential Alert System is designed to inform the nation of important news from the source instead of second or third hand through social media. That’s it. No Big Brother, 1984, sinister or childish intentions.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.