Around dawn Oct. 3, if all goes as planned, mobile phones in Hawaii will vibrate twice, bleat out two loud tones and display a message with the bold heading, “Presidential Alert,” followed by, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

For Hawaii residents, the first-of-its-kind nationwide drill by federal authorities will likely spark memories of January’s terrifying false alarm, when state officials texted residents an alert message saying a ballistic missile was headed toward the islands along with the chilling command to “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It took 38 minutes for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to send a follow-up message declaring the first text a false alarm. By then, residents were cowering in bathtubs, businesses had kicked customers onto the streets and locked their doors, and at least one family had placed their daughter in a storm drain for protection.

This message is supposed to appear on screens of wireless phones nationwide Oct. 3.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Given Hawaii’s experience, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is eager for residents to know about the October test ahead of time, said Brandi Richard, a spokeswoman for FEMA Region 9, which includes Hawaii. Still, she said, the text message will make clear there’s no actual threat.

Emergency alerts texted to cell phones are hardly new. Most recently officials in Hawaii used the Wireless Emergency Alert system to send out warnings during hurricanes Lane and Olivia.

What’s new is that FEMA, and not its state and local counterparts, will distribute a message nationally as part of a test required by a 2015 law. Known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015, the Obama-era law gives the president the authority to “alert and warn the civilian population in areas endangered by natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters or threats to public safety.”

Such threats to public safety would certainly include a nuclear missile headed to Hawaii, Richard said. But it also could include a lot more.

“Anything that would be a crisis for the country that the president would deem needed to be sent out that way could be sent out,” she said.

President Trump waves to crowd before jumping into his vehicle after landing at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor.

President Trump at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during a stopover in Hawaii last year.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If that seems scarier than Hawaii’s false alarm – the specter of Twitter-happy President Donald Trump sending alarming text messages to every cell phone in the nation – Richard said the president still must follow procedures to issue an alert.

Could Trump use the wireless emergency alert system as his personal texting service?

“Absolutely not,” Richard said.

“This is for serious emergencies,” she said and added that there are procedures in place to prevent anyone from misusing the system.

The test comes as officials are taking a hard look at the Wireless Emergency Alert system. Congress is considering two bills to tweak the system. One would put FEMA, instead of state agencies, in charge of issuing missile alerts. Hawaii has made changes to its procedures to prevent another false alarm.

FEMA originally scheduled the test for Thursday but pushed it to Oct. 3 because of Hurricane Florence. It will send a separate message via television broadcasters, cable systems and satellite radio and television systems.

The test will use the same vibration and tone used recently for storm warnings, FEMA said.

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