Donald Trump plans to text you Wednesday, whether you want him to or not. The first nationwide test of the government’s Presidential Alert system will unfold at 2:18 pm ET, when every cell phone user in the United States will receive a text message from FEMA saying, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
The test alert—which has already spawned numerous jokes about President Trump’s Twitter habits—is actually a rare public display of the classified side of FEMA’s daily work. The agency best known as the public face of the federal government’s response to major natural disasters originally started as—and continues to be—its secret doomsday planner, overseeing the so-called “continuity of government” efforts that would ensure the evacuation of key officials to mountain bunkers and airborne command posts after a catastrophe.
In fact, Wednesday’s test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System—the fourth nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, and the first to use texting—is only the latest in the country’s odd history of national doomsday alerts, plans that over the years have included everything from special radio stations to pink balloons to TV entertainer Arthur Godfrey to, at least for the cable network CNN, the song the band played as the Titanic sank.
Figuring out the fastest way to alert citizens of an impending enemy attack or other national crisis has befuddled planners since the dawn of the Cold War. The first attempt by civil defense authorities was a joint effort between radio and television broadcasters and government planners in the early 1950s, known at the time as Conelrad (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation).
Upon activation of the warning system, radio stations across the country would have shut down their normal broadcasts while more than 1,000 AM stations would switch over to broadcasting on the same two channels, 640 kHz or 1240 kHz. In an era long before GPS or satellite navigation, the goal was to provide the public with information while simultaneously confounding any Soviet bomber that was trying to home in on a specific city by following local radio signals. Instead, the select AM radio stations would blanket the airwaves with emergency announcements and attack warnings on two specially designated civil defense channels nationwide, which were marked with special logos on every radio dial manufactured between 1953 and 1963, when the program ended.
In the event of an imminent attack, TV personality Arthur Godfrey—one of the era’s most trusted voices, and a close friend of Dwight Eisenhower, the president at the time—had been asked to record a special public service announcement. His PSA, copies of which have never been found, was meant to calm panic and report optimistically that most Americans would survive the forthcoming nuclear war.
Later, in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal actually derailed an update to the Conelrad system, as public distrust of government surveillance forced the FEMA predecessor to abandon a new technology it had proudly developed. In the years after World War II, the government had moved away from relying on air-raid warning sirens, and instead briefly set its sights on a system known as the National Emergency Alarm Repeater, or NEAR. The small buzzers, available for $5 or $10, could plug into any household electrical outlet and were triggered by a unique high-frequency electrical current transmitted across the national power grid by 500 specially designed warning signal generators.
The small town of Charlotte, Michigan—close to the civil defense agency’s headquarters at the time, in Battle Creek—became the test bed for the NEAR device, US Patent 3,284,791. The government handed out 1,500 devices to civilians and, for its low-tech test, gave each NEAR-equipped home a pink weather balloon to release into the air if the buzzer went off successfully. Spotters set up camp atop the city’s courthouse roof and counted the mass of balloons as they rose into the sky to determine the test’s effectiveness.
Although it was originally intended to alert 90 percent of the country’s population within 30 seconds, the multimillion-dollar NEAR program was abandoned quickly when it became clear how useless a blanket, indistinct national alert would be. It provided no way for the government to give specific details or updates on the imminence or scale of an attack, and there was no way to reach citizens afterwards with further information about the government’s response.
Wednesday’s test of the Wireless Emergency Alert System is only the latest in the country’s odd history of national doomsday alerts.
Instead, officials through the Johnson and Nixon administrations began to develop what they called the Decision Information Distribution System, a national radio network designed to notify citizens of a Soviet strike. The DIDS device could be installed in television sets for $10—or retrofitted onto existing TVs for about $30—and would, following a special government signal, turn on the television at any hour and tune it to a special low-frequency channel. Within 30 seconds of Washington issuing a warning, every TV in the country could be alerted, saving precious minutes in the race for shelter.
At the same time the Watergate burglary was unfolding in 1972, the government invested $2 million to build the first dedicated DIDS transmitter outside Washington, for a station dubbed WGU-20, Public Emergency Radio. The government branded the program—which it estimated would save the lives of 27 million Americans by providing immediate warning of a Soviet attack—with PERki, a peppy, friendly puppy mascot emblazoned all over its literature. It began to move ahead with plans for 10 more DIDS stations spread across the country, all of them controlled by centrally located radio transmitters in Ault, Colorado, and Cambridge, Kansas.
In one poll, seven out of 10 Americans said they were excited about the program and willing to invest their own money in a DIDS transmitter. But as the Watergate scandal spread, so too did public distrust of the government. When congressional oversight hearings highlighted secret surveillance programs and dirty tricks by the FBI and CIA, the government quietly shelved the entire warning system. “The technology is there,” one federal official explained anonymously afterwards, “[but] after [Watergate], there was no way we were going to tell John Q. Public that we were going to put something in his home TV that was controlled by the government.”
By the 1980s the government had settled into the Emergency Broadcast System, with regular public tests turning its incessant buzz and staccato warning voice into a familiar aspect of the American TV and radio experience. Behind the scenes, FEMA and the Pentagon tested the system twice a day, ready for a Soviet attack that never came.
If it had, FEMA would have activated a special dedicated AT&T party line and announced nuclear war using the day’s specific emergency authentication codeword. The codewords for an attack were distributed in a red envelope four times a year to all the users of the emergency broadcast system. The codewords were generated automatically and preprinted for each month by an unsophisticated computer, which meant that the nation’s Emergency Alert System long contained codewords for days like February 30 and September 31.
CNN secretly prepared a video featuring the final song played by the band aboard the Titanic, set to air during the final moments before nuclear Armageddon.
Once activated, the alert would spread through warning centers like FEMA’s headquarters, secret bunkers like Mount Weather, and more than 2,000 state and local “warning points,” such as emergency 911 dispatch centers. Each center would hear an announcement: “Attention all stations. This is the National Warning Center. Emergency. This is an Attack Warning. Repeat. This is an Attack Warning.” FEMA would interrupt radio and television broadcasts as the FAA sent alerts to all airborne pilots, NOAA interrupted its weather radio network, and the Coast Guard broadcast nuclear war warnings to mariners at sea.
Some cities had their own unique warning systems, too: Button #13 in the DC mayor’s emergency command center activated the Emerzak network, seizing control of the city’s entire Muzak network and replacing the piped-in background music of the city’s elevators, lobbies, medical offices, and department stores with instructions about impending doom.
The officials in charge of the system had little confidence that all of the alerts would make much difference. Lt. Robert Hogan, New York’s deputy head of civil defense, said at one point, “The people who hear them will run into buildings and be turned to sand in a few seconds anyway.”
Beyond the government’s official systems, some media outlets readied their own doomsday warnings. When Ted Turner launched CNN, the network secretly prepared a video featuring the final song played by the band aboard the Titanic, set to air during the final moments before nuclear Armageddon. As Turner said publicly, “We’ll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event. We’ll play the National Anthem only one time, on the first of June [when the network premiered], and when the end of the world comes, we’ll play Nearer My God To Thee before we sign off.” CNN recorded the song played by a joint US military band, with an honor guard standing at attention, and the tape sat in the network’s archives for years. Slugged as “TURNER DOOMSDAY VIDEO,” the program’s notes read, “HFR till end of the world confirmed,” using the network’s abbreviation for “hold for release.” As Turner explained, “We knew we would only sign off once, and I knew what that would mean.”
Wednesday’s alert by FEMA tests what is now known as IPAWS, an acronym that has nothing to do with the perky dog mascot of days yore. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System represents both the familiar Emergency Alert System, for TV and radio, and the recent addition of the Wireless Emergency Alerts System, added during George W. Bush’s administration as a recognition that cell phones now represent the quickest way to reach the majority of Americans.
In the event of an IPAWS warning of a real nuclear strike, Americans would have about likely have about eight to 12 minutes to seek shelter before the missiles arrived.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the author of RAVEN ROCK: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. He can be reached at email@example.com.