Its Big Thing To See
People in New York’s Time Square had mixed reactions to the new presidential alert system sent out nationwide.
At 2:18 EST Wednesday most of us received a message on our cell phones, which was designed to test the new Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS).
IPAWS is basically an instantaneous way to inform nearly the entire citizenry about a major national emergency. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed the alert system, some people find the new program problematic, if not seriously concerning.
It’s not that national alerts are a bad thing — quite the contrary.
For decades, the federal government had a process for broadcasting a national emergency alert via television and radio networks. The concept being that if there were an impending nuclear attack or major nationwide terror attacks, the broadcast system would let folks know — presumably with some recommendations about what we were supposed to do.
The IPAWS has moved the alerts from a pop-up on your TV with the old “we interrupt your regularly scheduled program” message to a more 21st-century communication that is transmitted directly to your cell phone. Some cell phone users, however, didn’t receive the test Wednesday.
Aside from the test’s logistical glitch, there are three things about the test that have provoked a minor social media flurry.
1. Some people are objecting to their personal space being invaded (so to speak) by a message they found upsetting and intrusive. In the age of ubiquitous smart phones and extraordinary intrusions, overt and clandestine, into every aspect of our personal space and privacy, that objection is understandable.
2. Another concern is a “what if” scenario. What if a false alarm of a non-existent national emergency was transmitted to every cell phone in the country?
Recall the situation last year in Hawaii when emergency response officials broadcast a message informing citizens that North Korea had launched a nuclear-tipped missile expected to hit Honolulu in 20 minutes. People reacted with something between complacency and panic.
False alarms — in this case, a technological glitch — could be dangerous.
3. Finally, the new IPAWS system has been referred to a “Presidential Alert” system. I suspect that many Americans would not be thrilled to have an uninvited personal message from the current occupant of the White House.
More to the point, for some of us, the idea that President Trump would have a national microphone like this would be unsettling, to say the least.
Yes, the message would be written by FEMA officials — but who could be confident that the man would stick to script?
If Trump thought, for instance, that his presidency was under serious siege, say, facing significant risk of criminal indictment or impeachment, could he use the IPAWS for entirely nefarious purposes? Who knows?
Still, all this said, having a national emergency alert system is a good idea — and an important aspect of emergency preparedness.
No matter who is president, there needs to be built-in safeguards, so technical mistakes can be avoided and we can eliminate the possibility of any president going rogue with the IPAWS megaphone.
Perhaps sign-off on the message content by the Secretary of Defense or Speaker of the House needs to be built in. Maybe there should be a five-second delay and cut-off mechanism to stop the broadcast if necessary.
FEMA has communicated to the media this system is not actually activated by the president, but rather by someone at FEMA with significant involvement of other agencies and advisors. Further, it is designed to update pre-scripted message templates rather than completely new messages.
But these safeguards are bureaucratic processes, not laws. It is not clear how easily they can be changed by a sitting president.
Dangers lurk, disasters happen. Presidents can become unhinged. We need to be prepared for situations that no one could have imagined.
Appropriate oversight must be established to assure Americans that IPAWS has built-in safeguards to preclude the possibility of technical mishaps, inaccurate messages or out of control messengers, even if they happen to be president of the United States.
Dr. Irwin Redlener directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute of Columbia University and is professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now.”
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