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FCC Releases Timeline of the False Alert

Now there’s more information behind the story than someone “pushed a wrong button”

The investigation into the false missile alert sent to residents of Hawaii last month has illuminated many aspects — not least of them that state emergency agencies need a plan in place for preventing a false alert, and then dealing with the aftermath should one happen, said the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

At the FCC’s January meeting, time was allotted off the bat for the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to share the status of its ongoing investigation into the false EAS alert. The basics that many of us already know: that the alert was released at 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 13, that the group responsible for sending out the alert was Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), that it was sent through EAS and WEA, and that a great deal of panic reigned for the next 38 minutes as officials struggled to determine what happened.

Now there’s a little more of a story behind the Hawaii governor’s initial explanation that someone “pushed a wrong button.”

After interviewing HI-EMA employees, emergency management agencies across the country and the vendor that supplies HI-EMA with its EAS equipment, the FCC put together a compelling timeline.

It began with the midnight shift supervisor at HI-EMA, beginning what looked to be a no-notice drill at a shift change, placing a call to the day shift officers and pretending to be U.S. Pacific Command. That recorded phone call — listened to on speakerphone — said, “Exercise, Exercise, Exercise” but also, questionably, contained the text of an EAS message for a live ballistic missile alert. It also included the phrase “This Is Not a Drill.”

While several warning officers on-site understood the process was a drill, the warning officer at the alert origination terminal said, in a written statement, that it looked to be a real emergency.

Thinking the next correct step was to send out an alert, the officer clicked on a template for a live alert from a drop-down menu. At 8:07 am, when the prompt asked, “Are you sure you want to send this alert?” the operator clicked “Yes.”

Things then began to happen in rapid succession.

Within a minute, the HI-EMA notified the governor of Hawaii that the alert was false. In the next minute, the agency then reached out to U.S. Pacific Command and the Honolulu Police Department with the same message: there is no missile threat.

Five minutes after the alert was sent, HI-EMA ceased transmission of the false alert over EAS and WEA. But as it tried to unravel the effects of the false alert, phone lines to and from HI-EMA became congested. At the 13-minute mark, HI-EMA posted on Facebook and Twitter that there was no missile threat to Hawaii. That message was then followed up by a retweet by the governor reiterating that there was no incoming missile.

Exactly 20 minutes after the alert was sent out, HI-EMA determined that the best way to send a correction was via an EAS/WEA Civil Emergency Message. Four minutes after that, at 8:31 a.m., a HI-EMA supervisor logged into the alert system, created the false alert correction, and at 8:45 a.m., transmitted a new alert through EAS and WEA: There is no missile threat.

After its initial research, the FCC said that a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to the transmission of the alert, and the nearly-40-minute-lag-time in issuing a second EAS/WEA alert was due to the fact that HI-EMA had no organized method for responding to the transmission of a false alert.

In the weeks since, the individual that pushed the button has been fired. According to the Washington Post, this was not the first such mix-up for this employee. At least twice before the false alarm, the Post reported, he “has confused real life events and drills,” a state investigation concluded, part of a troubled work history that had “been a source of concern . . . for over 10 years” to his co-workers.

In addition, the head of HI-EMA, Vern Miyagi, has resigned.

The bureau now plans to issue a final report that will recommend ways to safeguard against future false alerts and ways to mitigate the effects of one if it happens again. It plans to partner with FEMA to work with states emergency management agencies to put such best practice steps into place.

It became abundantly clear that many things went wrong in Hawaii, Chairman Ajit Pai said during the January meeting. The two most troubling things that the investigation found, he said, is that HI-EMA did not have reasonable safeguards in place to prevent a false alert due to human error, and HI-EMA did have an organized response about to what to do when a false alert is transmitted.

“The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible alert,” he said.

The complete timeline released by the FCC can be found here.