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FEMA's 'Presidential Alert' test postponed as some Americans want to disconnect

The wireless emergency alert test was set to go out Thursday before FEMA announced it will be pushed back to Oct. 3.

Plenty of Americans aren't terribly keen to be receiving text messages from the president, even in an emergency.

And they'll have a reprieve, if only briefly.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the wireless emergency alert (WEA) system, announced that the test that had been scheduled for Thursday will be pushed back to Oct. 3, citing the "ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence."

The initial announcement was met with concerns from social media users who stated that a direct message from President Donald Trump to the nation could be used for political purposes, similar to how he uses his official Twitter page.

One online user responded to FEMA's announcement via Twitter, saying, "We don’t need presidential alerts! We already have public emergency alert messaging. This is not necessary!"

Many also went on to raise the issue of the alert being mandatory, with no way to opt of it. One user even messaged Verizon Wireless, one of the 100 wireless service companies that have agreed to provide the alert to their network, asking how she can avoid receiving it.

Some users even threatened to cancel their cellphone service, while others said they would protest the test by turning their phones off, creating the hashtag #GoDark920 in response to the original test date.

Stephen Cobb, a security researcher at ESET, a technology security company, tweeted via his verified account that the blowback against the test indicated the broader frustration with the president.

"This POTUS is so bad that folks are prepared to forgo the potential benefits of a national alert system - which already exists on radio and TV - because it is hard to believe Trump will not abuse it."

Jeramie Scott, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, also said that without more information on the breadth and reach of this system, there could be a risk of abuse due to it's "intrusive" nature.

According to Scott, the WEA is an intrusive alert system because it stops all forms of communications to your mobile device while the alert is processing. The Emergency Alert System (EAS), which he deems less intrusive, displays emergency messages on T.V. and radio.

“With a system that affects so many people, it's important that we step back and have a conversation about when such a system should be used and make sure there are safeguards put into place when such a system is abused,” Scott said. “We need to discuss what limits can be imposed to prevent the president from abusing this authority.”

Scott's concerns of a potential abuse of authority were echoed online.

Lastly, some users were generally confused about the sudden reasoning for such an alert system.

"What problem does this solve? Like what is gained by the president — any president — having the ability to put a message directly into my nightmare brick," tweeted data scientist Emily Gorcenski, from her verified account.

However, those large volumes of public concerns have been offset by excitement from emergency management workers.

"I think it is an outstanding tool in the toolbox," said Nick Crossley, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers in the U.S. "It is a great way to get notification to anybody who has a cellphone."

Crossley, who is also the director for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency in Hamilton County, Ohio, said that unlike local emergency alerts, mobile users cannot turn off the president's wireless alerts, making it more effective in life-threatening emergencies.

“The challenge with these sort of alerts is that very rarely is the federal government sending these nationwide alerts," Crossley said. "This responsibility usually falls to the local emergency systems, but if you have your alerts turned off, you won’t be prepared."

This is uncharted territory for most employees in emergency response and management, since this would be the first wireless emergency alert from an American president since the EAS was put in place by the Federal Communications Commission in 1997.

In its history, there have only been three instances where the EAS sent an alert, each of them tests of the system. The alert system was initially created to enable the president to speak to the nation within 10 minutes through an audio message in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. The most recent national test took place nearly a year ago on Sept. 28, 2017.

CORRECTION (Sept 18, 2018 12:41 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated how many messages have been sent testing the Emergency Alert System. There have been three, not four.