False Tsunami Warning Highlights Alert Problems for Congress


From left: Antwane Johnson, FEMA; Lisa Fowlkes, FCC; Benjamin Krakauer, NYC; Scott Bergmann, CTIA and Sam Matheny, NAB testify before a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

A tsunami warning was mistakenly sent to some cell phones and distributed via other media up and down the east coast Tuesday morning as lawmakers on a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing to discuss emergency alert issues. The National Weather Service issued a routine test message around 8:30 a.m., and at least one private sector company released the message as a real alert, according to NWS.

Members of the House Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee said yesterday’s mishap, and last month’s false missile alert sent out in Hawaii can cause people to lose confidence in alerting, causing tune-out. Lisa Fowlkes, Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau testified that Hawaii had a more significant problem than the false alert mistakenly sent by one now-former employee. “The bigger problem is the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency never contemplated sending out a false alert. So when it happened, they were unprepared.”

Fowlkes then said state officials had to figure out what to do, including write a recall message.  

Antwane Johnson is Director of Continuity Communications for FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which authenticates and formats for distribution alerts originated by states and localities. He said, “If there was any confusion on the part of Hawaii Emergency Management officials as to their authority to send that message or what type of message, when there’s that type of uncertainty, that points back to training. We’re going to address that with training. Those are deliberate actions they must take and be prepared for.” 

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) said the issue of who should determine when such alerts should be sent, should be up to the federal government, not states when “the results could be catastrophic.” Benjamin Krakauer, Assistant Commissioner for Strategy and Program Development for NYC’s Emergency Management Department, agreed. “We think the federal government is in the best position to determine a threat to a state.”

Noting that mobile customers can opt-out of most Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) (except those sent by the President), Ranking member Donald Payne (D-NJ) asked Krakauer for his take. Krakauer suggested Congress should eliminate this option.

Payne asked Scott Bergmann, CTIA SVP for Regulatory Affairs, if the organization agrees. Bergmann said, “Our goal is to make sure we do everything we can do to eliminate alert fatigue.” CTIA preferred not to comment on whether the opt-out choice should be taken away from mobile customers for WEA and also on whether the authority to send alerts should be removed from states in favor of the feds.

Subcommittee Chair Dan Donovan (R-NY) asked witnesses what lawmakers can do to help protect citizens. Bergmann said: “Congress has a unique role in making more spectrum available for the wireless industry.” That would enable the wireless industry to build-out its network using “targeted investment” for small cells, he said.

NAB CTO Sam Matheny asked for Congressional support for the Viewer Protection Act, which would fix the reimbursement shortfall for stations that need to change channels due to the spectrum repack. Some stations are choosing to implement the upgraded ATSC 3.0 transmission system as they repack. Broadcasters ask that “new regulatory hurdles should not be placed in our way as we deploy ATSC 3.0,” said Matheny, adding it has the capability to wake-up sleeping TV’s to deliver alerts and allow stations to include multimedia elements, like maps or video, in those warnings.

By Leslie Stimson, Washington Bureau Chief, Inside Towers

February 7, 2018   

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