Lessons Learned Over Hawaii’s False Missile Alert

“This is not a drill.” The words warned Hawaii residents of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They were used again on January 13 of this year when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was trying to conduct an internal exercise of their ballistic missile defense drill using the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).

The test went wrong, resulting in HI-EMA sending a false alert about a ballistic missile coming to Hawaii. HI-EMA’s message told people to “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It took HI-EMA 13 minutes to notify the public via social media the alert was a mistake and a total of 38 minutes to issue a correction over EAS and WEA, says the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau in its completed report on the incident. 

In its initial report released on January 30, the bureau said a combination of several human errors, confusion and inadequate safeguards at HI-EMA led to the false alert, Inside Towers reported. In its final report issued Tuesday, the agency said it’s trying to push the dialogue among alerting stakeholders forward, to ensure the integrity of EAS and WEA.

The four nationwide wireless carriers participate in WEA and offer service to Hawaii (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile). Each reported to FCC investigators they received and retransmitted both the false alert and the correction over WEA within seconds once it was received from FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Carriers transmit these alerts over their cell towers to mobile devices within the service area.

No wireless carrier experienced any delay from IPAWS because, as AT&T notes, the gateway from IPAWS to each wireless provider is a dedicated channel that’s not subject to internet congestion. Similarly, WEA messages are transmitted within each provider’s network over cell broadcast, a process separate from the carrier networks, and also not subject to congestion.

The four carriers told the FCC that although there was a high volume of calls in the state on January 13, the impact on their networks was not significant. Some citizens reported they didn’t receive the WEA alerts. The Commission says some of them may not have WEA-capable devices, or their phone may have been out of network range, in airplane mode or turned off. Consumers have the option to opt out of receiving all WEA alerts except those issued by the President.

The agency issued several recommendations to state, local, tribal and territorial emergency alert originators and managers about “lessons learned” from its investigation. Those include testing their system regularly and having more than one person to validate an alert before transmission. The bureau also recommended not using phrases like “This is Not a Drill” or “Real World” in test messages.

April 12, 2018         

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