At 2:18 p.m. et today, your smartphone probably buzzed and shrieked before displaying a notice that resembled a text message. This was the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission’s test of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system (WEA). A test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which sends emergency messages to radio and television, followed two minutes later. Both messages clearly indicated that the alert constituted a test and not a real emergency.
That might thrill or terrify you, but it’s nothing new—the infrastructure to send presidential messages to smartphones has been around since 2012. And since the 1960s, the president has had the ability to directly address the nation live, via all its broadcast channels. But neither facility has been used, not in the past five years or the past 50.
What does the presidential alert mean in the Trump era, and beyond it? The answer is not encouraging. Disquiet about the test, including efforts to power down phones, cancel wireless plans, and otherwise agitate against the very idea of non-optional emergency notices, suggests that even general public safety is not a domain in which Americans can find common ground.