WASHINGTON –– The false missile alarm in Hawaii earlier this month was “inexcusable” and raises serious issues regarding emergency alert systems, the chairman of the Senate commerce committee said Thursday as Hawaii’s senator demanded such messages get Pentagon review before being issued.
“False alerts not only create unnecessary panic, they undermine the integrity of the emergency alert system, leading to public distrust and confusion,” said Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who heads the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
On Jan. 13, Hawaiian residents received alerts to seek shelter because a ballistic missile was inbound. They received alerts 38 minutes later that the first bulletin was a false alarm.
Under the current U.S. emergency alert system, local authorities approve the content of threat alerts, which then go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be verified before distribution.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii said he will introduce a bill to stipulate that only the Department of Defense and Homeland Security can confirm missile alerts.
“A missile attack is federal. A missile attack is not a local responsibility,” Schatz said. “Confirmation and notification of a missile attack should reside with the agency that knows first and knows for sure.”
Schatz also pointed out that clarification of the false alarm took too long. Officials of The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were aware of the error minutes after they sent out the erroneous notification to Hawaii residents, yet they didn’t retract it for 38 minutes, he said. He and others attributed the delay to bad communications between the Hawaii officials and FEMA.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is working to develop safer protocols, said Lisa Fowlkes, chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. This includes requiring signatures from two individuals before sending off live alerts, she said.
“Emergency alerting systems provide timely and life-saving information to the public, and we must take all measures to bolster and restore the public’s confidence in these systems,” she said.
Fowlkes also said the FCC will be looking into managing crowded landlines during times of crisis. During the Hawaii incident, residents couldn’t make phone calls during the 38 minutes because of jammed landlines.
Despite the false alarm in Hawaii, Wireless Emergency Alerts — the push notification system for mobile devices that announces security threats — have become one of the most effective ways to notify civilians of imminent dangers, said Scott Bergmann, vice president of CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless industry.
“Alert originators must send Wireless Emergency Alerts appropriately and judiciously; the FEMA authentication and verification process must be expeditious and robust,” he said.
A field hearing will be held in Hawaii in the near future to follow up on the issue.