The Hard Truths Behind Hawaii’s False Missile Alert

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is united in believing that if the federal government knows a missile is coming, the feds should have the authority for warning citizens. “There’s nothing more federal than an incoming ICBM missile,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) during a Senate Communications Subcommittee field hearing in Hawaii on Thursday. Lawmakers held a panel earlier in the year concerning the January 13 false missile alert issued in the Aloha state, but wanted to get feedback from local officials too.

“Our intent is not to point fingers, but to come back and say to the public, ‘We are addressing mishaps,’” and “not simply identifying the problems but giving people a sense of security that we really do know what we’re doing,” said Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI).  Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) noted that: “many cell phones in Hawaii did not receive the Wireless Emergency Alert.This is something that must be resolved.”   

Hanabusa told Rear Admiral Patrick Piercey, Director of Operations for the U.S. Pacific Command, “An incoming missile is an act of war. If you know it is coming, you should act accordingly.” Lawmakers said the current checks and balances between the Command and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for authenticating an alert are too cumbersome.

In the meantime, Schatz said his ALERT Act, a bill to make missile alerts a federal government responsibility, now part of the authorization for the Department of Homeland Security, is pending a vote in the full Senate. Schatz said he’s preparing companion legislation. The Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act, would update the WEA and EAS systems that deliver emergency alerts “initiated by government entities and close gaps in these systems so that they don’t fall behind as technology advances.” He added: “It would also require the FCC to set best practices and update the process for creating and approving the state plans that organize these emergency response systems and the networks that deliver the alerts.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urged the Commission to make its report about the incident public soon. Nicole McGinnis, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said it would and is expected to confirm the agency’s initial findings, that a combination of human errors and confusion led to the mistake.

The Hawaii state alerting plan on file with the agency is more than 10 years old, she said, and that needs to change for both WEA and EAS. Instead of just requiring state emergency planners to check a box indicating they filed a plan, “We should make the process a meaningful one,” like “creating best practices and inducing the states to follow them.”

Any state plan should include what to do when a false alert is sent, she said, including how long it will take to let the public know it was sent in error. That’s because it took the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency 38 minutes to do that on January 13.  

As for the jammed phone lines experienced on that day, Rosenworcel said “most of our phone networks are built to withstand [regular] capacity. Cells on Wheels can take care of excess capacity.” But that’s for a planned event. “We should ask Hawaii if they are taking advantage of the FCC’s programs which can help them get priority when lines are jammed,” she said.

Antwane Johnson, director of continuity communications for FEMA, said the agency is highlighting best practices to help guide alerting authorities as they update their procedures. FEMA intends to launch an online forum this spring to enable alerting authorities and software developers share lessons learned, he said. Had the alerting software vendor Hawaii was using offered a 24/7 support line, “there would have been less lag time” in rescinding the alert, he suggested. McGinnis said the software didn’t include a way to send an all-clear to the public.

“The missile warning did prompt a number of other states to contact us,” said Johnson. “They called FEMA and said: ‘I didn’t know this was on us,’” Schatz replied.

by Leslie Stimson, Washington Bureau Chief, Inside Towers

April 9, 2018

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