Senate Committee Wants Answers on False EAS Alert

FCC said human error and ‘insufficient safeguards’ led to false alert, as individual who sent alert refuses to cooperate with investigation
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In the immediate moments after that false EAS alert was sent out in Hawaii, there was the problem with the phone.

After the initial EAS alert was disseminated, the governor reached out to the Department of Defense but couldn’t get through. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) of Hawaii couldn’t reach the governor of Hawaii. Local station KSSK(FM) couldn’t get through to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

It was like a comedy of errors, as Sen. Schatz put it during a Jan. 25 Senate Commerce Committee hearing — but without any humor, as state officials attempted to suss out what was happening and what the next steps would be after that false EAS alert.

The hearing “This is Not a Drill: An Examination of Emergency Alert Systems,” held by the Senate Commerce on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Jan. 25, was much like that communication snafu.

Members of the committee asked the assembled panel how an errant EAS alert about an inbound missile was sent out. Why did the misstep happen? And what can be done to keep it from happening again?

At the hearing, Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-SD) asked representatives from the Federal Communications Commission, National Association of Broadcasters, CTIA and Amateur Radio League to clarify their role in the nation’s emergency alerting efforts, to explain just how such a mistake could happen and indicate how the industry would move forward.

Two goals, as pointed out by Sen. Thune said, are how the nation goes about disseminating timely and accurate emergency information, and how to avoid alert fatigue in a population that could grow weary of false alarms.

Take for example, a similar (though much smaller) alert mistake that occurred on Jan. 23, when the Oregon Department of Transportation incorrectly warned drivers that an airplane had crashed into a major interstate outside Portland.

“Messages sent in error like the Hawaii ballistic missile alert run the risk of undermining the entire alert system by reducing people’s confidence in alerts,” Sen. Thune said. “Ensuring that people get the information they need, and that alerts are credible and make sense to the recipients is an ongoing process, but it is fundamental that messages must be credible.”

According to Lisa M. Fowlkes, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security, Bureau, the ongoing investigation uncovered that the false alert was issued as a result of both human error and the state having “insufficient safeguards and process controls in place” to prevent that human error from resulting in the transmission of a false alert, she said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is now working with its vendor to integrate additional technical safeguards into its alert origination software, she said, and has changed its protocols to require two individuals to sign off on the transmission of tests and live alerts.

She also said that the person who sent alert is refusing to cooperate with the investigation.

When Sen. Thune asked for clarification on how a ballistic missile threat could be sent out — “I mean, this is a ballistic missile threat, this is DOD, this is nuclear war type thing,” he said. “I’m at a loss for how an origination of an alert [could get] so messed up. Anybody want to take a stab at that?”

No one did. “That’s not our purview,” Fowlkes said, saying the FCC does not have authority over the alert origination piece. FEMA oversees the Integrated Public Alert and Warning system, she said.

In response to a question from Sen. Schatz, Fowlkes said that that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency did not need authority from FEMA or the FCC to send out a correction.

Later in the session, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) asked why a representative from FEMA wasn’t at the table. “I know you requested them to come,” he said to Sen. Thune. “We need questions answered.”

When Radio World reached out to FEMA on the question, a FEMA spokesperson said the agency briefed a bipartisan group of the committee staff members the previous week, at the committee’s request. FEMA will continue to remain engaged with this committee and others with a responsibility to conduct oversight on this important matter, the spokesperson said.

During the hearing, Sen. Schatz placed some of the blame from the Hawaii false alert on those who are the originators of state-level alerts.

“States are laboratories of democracies. They should not be the laboratories for missile alerts,” he said. “A missile attack is not a local responsibility.”

Sen. Schatz plans to introduce legislation that would ensure that the authority to send out high-impact alerts, like a ballistic missile warning, should rest with the Department of the Defense and Homeland Security “so the public is safe and informed,” he said.

Sen. Schatz also questioned why mobile phone users have the opportunity to turn off an alert at all. “The broadcast [consumer] doesn’t have opportunity in their settings to turn off alerts,” he said. “Why do we allow people to turn off alerts of that magnitude on their phones?”

Also at the hearing was Sam Matheny, NAB executive vice president and chief technology officer, who talked about broadcasting’s ongoing role in emergency situations, including its efforts to work with the wireless industry on market-based solutions to activate FM chips in smartphones.

That is, with one exception, he said. “Our market efforts have been successful with one very notable exception: Apple,” Matheny said. “We believe Apple should be encouraged to active the FM tuner in future models of their iPhones, so it will improve access to people’s access to vital information in times of disaster.”

Up next: the Commerce Committee plans to conduct a field hearing in Hawaii at an unknown date to discuss the Jan. 13 EAS false alarm and follow up on issues from today’s hearing. “This hearing is an important step on the road to regaining the public’s trust,” Sen. Schatz said.

The Jan. 25 hearing was also attended by Scott Bergmann, executive vice president with CTIA, and Mike Lisenco, a chairman with the Amateur Radio Relay League.

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