You’ve probably, at some point, gotten a text alert on your phone about some nasty weather, an Amber Alert about a missing child, or even a (very poorly worded) alert about police looking for a criminal. These 90-character messages, known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (or WEAs), are part of a program put in place after Congress passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act, in 2006. WEAs allow for targeted messages to be sent to every cell phone getting a signal from certain geographically relevant cell towers (or, in a national emergency, all of them).
Here’s where things get interesting. Per the FCC, a WEA may be sent for three different reasons:
What alerts does WEA deliver?
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.
This fun quirk of the Wireless Emergency Alert system was brought to my attention by Twitter user Chris Lawrence:
While it’d be a true nightmare to get screeching alerts from your phone that “Loser Senate Democrats still won’t confirm great man Peter Thiel to Supreme Court. Sad!”, there are some checks and balances on this. While President-elect Trump hasn’t shown much impulse control when it comes to his favorite mass-messaging service, Twitter, the process for issuing a WEA isn’t as simple as typing out a 90-character alert from a presidential smartphone and hitting “Send.”
All WEAs must be issued through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, meaning that an emergency alert from the president still has at least one layer to pass through before being issued. 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.
Perhaps an even bigger protection: Getting access to the system requires some time and effort — most people with access take at least two courses in how to use the system — something that it’s hard to imagine Trump (who doesn’t use a computer) learning how to do on his own. Which means he would need the help of his support staff to issue a WEA about how news outlets still refuse to stop taking pictures that emphasize his double chin — and the only time Trump’s Twitter wasn’t full of random surges of pure id and spite was when his campaign staff took his Twitter account away from him.