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Questions About False Missile Alert: “How?,” “Why?,” “What Next?”

Alert infrastructure comes under fresh scrutiny after Hawaii’s rude wakeup

Questions are being asked all across the country’s communications landscape as regulators, emergency managers and broadcasters attempt to figure out how a false emergency alert was sent out to residences of Hawaii through the IPAWS EAS and WEA systems.

The false alert was sent to smartphones and delivered via TV and radio at 8:05 a.m. local time on Saturday, warning residents that a ballistic missile was inbound to Hawaii. The emergency all-caps alert reiterated the danger by adding “This is Not a Drill.” All residents were warned to seek immediate shelter.

Official word from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency ensued that there was no missile threat, and that the alert had been sent in error during a regular system drill. News outlets reported that Gov. David Ige said someone had “pushed the wrong button” during an employee shift change, sending the alert.

Steps are underway to address the situation as questions swirl. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating. Online groups involving various emergency communication groups are abuzz about how many TV, radio and cable operators sent along the alert — and also how many did not follow protocol and send what appeared at first to be a legitimate alert. Other observers have wondered if the situation could be due to a potential hacking incident.

“The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a statement the day after the alert. The alert caused a wave of panic in the state, he said, which was worsened by the fact that it took 38 minutes for a correction alert to be issued.

One of the issues that the FCC plans to take up at its January open meeting are reforms to the WEA program, in part to encourage more individuals to sign up to receive alerts. Specifically, Pai recently wrote in a blog that the changes the FCC is proposing to make to WEA would hopefully “lead Americans to take more seriously the alerts they receive on their mobile devices,” he said, and encourage fewer people to opt out of receiving WEA messages.

The FCC is in the midst of investigating the missile scare, Pai said. So far, it looks as though the state government did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert, he said. “Moving forward, we will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again,” Pai said.

“This situation is far, far beyond deeply disturbing,” Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a Twitter post, adding that “the excuses being provided are not believable … The catastrophic harms it could have caused are immeasurable,” he said.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Richard Rapoza said the worker who inadvertently sent the alert has been reassigned within the agency’s emergency operation center pending the outcome of an internal investigation.