'Presidential Alert' Message Sent Wednesday: It Was Only A Test Texts stating "Presidential Alert" were sent to some 225 million U.S. cellphones at 2:18 p.m. ET.

This Is Only A Test: Why Your Cellphone Buzzed Wednesday Afternoon

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This afternoon at exactly 2:18 Eastern time, you can expect to get a presidential alert on your cellphone. It's not exactly from President Trump. Rather, it's a test of a new nationwide warning system that a president could use in case of an attack by another country or a cyberattack or a widespread natural disaster. Still, some worry President Trump could abuse the system. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Back in the days of the Cold War, it was pretty common to hear this announcement on TV or radio. You know the one - this station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. Things have gotten a little more sophisticated now. But basically, the same minute-long Emergency Alert System test is conducted every month or so on broadcast, cable and satellite TV and radio. There will be one of those this afternoon, too.

But today, you'll also be getting an alert on your cellphone. Now, some of us receive alerts already - Amber Alerts for missing children or flash flood or tornado warnings. But this is the first time that you'll be getting a national presidential alert from FEMA.

Irwin Redlener is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. He says testing the system makes sense.

IRWIN REDLENER: I think having the testing of this new wireless Emergency Alert System is a good idea. And you can think about a variety of scenarios where it would be good for the president to be able to speak directly to the public.

NAYLOR: But this is where Dr. Redlener has some qualms, especially, he says, when it comes to this president.

REDLENER: We shudder to think that the president might be using such a system for political purposes or to create a diversion if he felt the presidency was under threat for whatever reason. So I think there are real concerns here. I hate to be so blunt about it, but these are not powers that many Americans would want to give to Donald Trump.

NAYLOR: Redlener is not alone. Last week, three people filed suit in New York to block the testing of the system known as Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA. The suit states the plaintiffs are Americans who do not wish to receive text messages of any kind on any topic or subject from President Trump. They say the government is violating their privacy and the sanctity of their homes and that it wants to turn people's cellphones into government loudspeakers that compel listening.

FEMA says that accusation is baseless. In a background briefing for reporters, a senior FEMA official conceded, while there is no opting out of the alert, the system is very well-governed, and you would not have a situation where the president would just wake up one morning, as the official put it, and attempt to send a personal message. And besides, he has Twitter for that.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.


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