The goal of the hearing was pretty clear by the name alone: “Hawaii False Missile Alert: What Happened and What Should We Do Next?”
On April 5 in Honolulu, the deputy chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation what has been said for months: the ballistic missile alert sent by the state of Hawaii on Jan. 13 was unacceptable.
“False alerts like this one can shake the public’s trust in alert messaging, and ultimately jeopardize the public’s safety in times of real emergency,” said Nicole McGinnis.
In the wake of that alert, the bureau said it has opened an investigation, presented preliminary findings to the commission, and coordinated with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other stakeholders. The bureau is in the midst of submitting a final report to the full commission, McGinnis said.
“We expect that the final report will confirm the bureau’s preliminary findings: The false alert in Hawaii and HI-EMA’s delay in correcting it was due to a combination of human error and the lack of effective operating procedures and safeguards,” she said.
McGinnis revealed some of what the bureau learned in its investigation. First, that human error occurred on many levels, including the use of a recording to initiate the drill that contained the text of an EAS message for a live ballistic missile alert and miscommunication between the outgoing and incoming shift supervisors as to which shift would perform the test during the shift change.
Second, that there were not adequate steps in place to prevent or correct a false alarm once it happened. For example, HI-EMA lacked procedures to prevent a single person from mistakenly issuing a live missile alert. If, for example, it had required a second officer to confirm an alert, the false warning likely would have been prevented, McGinnis said.
“Clear protocols for not just cancellation, but also for prompt correction of a false alert over the same systems used to issue the alert, would have reduced the public panic that ensued in the extensive time following the false alert.”
The bureau’s final report will also detail findings with respect to the how EAS participants and WEA providers transmitted the message. In many cases — at least from a technical perspective — the system worked as designed; the majority of EAS participants received the alert within seconds and retransmitted it. Those that did not relay the alert did not have their equipment set to auto-forward the message, McGinnis said.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was in attendance at the Senate hearing and had her own list of must-do solutions. She said the FCC must make sure that the state Emergency Alert System plans filed with the FCC are updated annually. “The Hawaii plan was over a decade old,” she said. Second, the FCC needs a reporting system for false alerts to learn when they happen and to prevent them from recurring. Third, the FCC should explore more alert capabilities such as embedded multimedia options and alerts through audio and video streaming services.
And fourth, Rosenworcel said, the industry needs to address failures like these where they start: at the alert origination point. She pointed to a bill introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) in February called the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act of 2018, which suggest, among other things, the creation of clear guidelines of responsibility when it comes to missile threats. That legislation is included in a Department of Homeland Security reauthorization package that awaits Senate approval later this year, Schatz told the public affairs outlet Honolulu Civil Beat after the hearing.
Moving forward, McGinnis said the bureau is focused on lessons learned and best practices. The FCC report will offer recommendations to state and local emergency alert originators and managers to minimize the risk of similar incidents. HI-EMA has implemented some of these recommendations, she said. Some of the recommendations will include:
• Conducting regular internal tests in a closed environment to enable staff to maintain proficiency with alerting tools and to exercise procedures in way manner that does not affect the public;
• Requiring more than one credentialed person to validate a message prior to transmission of a high-impact alert;
• Implementing specific upgrades to alerting software, including creating clearer prompting language to distinguish live and test messages;
• Developing standard operating procedures for responding to false alerts; and
• Consulting with state emergency communications committees on a regular basis to ensure that EAS procedures are agreed upon and documented in the state EAS plan.