How to Avoid an ‘Unblockable’ Presidential Alert
The President has the authority to send unblockable text messages to nearly every cell phone in the US, and a test of this system is scheduled for 2:18 p.m. Eastern time on October 3, 2018. But even though technically you can’t opt out, there are a few things you can try.
First, let’s talk about how unblockable these really are: the Wireless Emergency Alert system was established in a 2006 law, and became fully operational in 2012. The original law says that wireless carriers can allow their customers to block emergency alerts, except the Presidential ones.
The Presidential alerts are meant for situations of national importance: if a nuke were headed our way, for example, or some other serious, nationwide news. It’s not meant as an alternate outlet for petty, insulting tweets, and the message has to go through FEMA—it’s not sent directly from the President’s phone.
Try turning off all emergency alerts (this probably won’t work)
This shouldn’t work, but October 3 is your chance to figure out whether it actually does. A Presidential alert has never been sent before, so this is untested territory.
Your phone should have a setting to let you turn off emergency alerts. This includes severe weather alerts (like tornado warnings) and AMBER alerts (the ones that ask you to keep an eye out for abducted children).
On iPhone, go to Settings, then Notifications, and then scroll to the bottom to see government alerts. There are switches to turn off AMBER alerts and “Emergency alerts.”
On most Android phones, go to Settings, and then Sound, and then Emergency Alerts. On Samsung devices, you’ll find options for emergency alerts in your Messages app settings instead.
If you lucked out, and it turns out your phone does block the Presidential message, enjoy the peace while it lasts. The whole point of the test is to find out if the system works as designed, so your carrier or your phone’s manufacturer will have to fix the problem.
Enjoy a 30-minute break from your phone
This won’t block alerts in an emergency, but if you’d like to avoid the test’s mass phone-blaring at 2:18 p.m. (11:18 a.m. on the west coast), turn off your phone or set it to airplane mode until 2:48.
That’s because each alert has its own “alert period” in which the alert, like a bird that keeps bonking against your window, will try frantically to reach you. If you’re on a call, you’ll get the alert when you hang up. If your phone was off, you’ll get the alert as soon as you turn it back on.
But after the alert period has expired, that frantic little bird goes away. FEMA says the October test will use an alert period of “approximately 30 minutes.”
At least put it on silent
Emergency alerts come with a “tone” that is different from your usual notification ding. In practice, this tone is a blaring alarm that scares you half to death.
But at least you can silence it. FEMA notes that “Consumers should receive a visual message if their phone is on silent.” So you can’t block the president’s text, but you can silence it, at least.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on this test, FEMA invites the public to send feedback (ideally about whether you received the alert, but hey, you can send what you like) to FEMA-National-Test@fema.dhs.gov.