Emergency alert system faces further scrutiny following Hawaii’s false alarm

Hawaii (Pixabay)
The FCC said it appeared that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert. (Image: Pixabay)

The FCC is taking steps to prevent an incident similar to what happened with Hawaii’s false missile report on Saturday.

The false alarm that was broadcast to cell phones on Saturday morning occurred when an employee hit the wrong button by accident during a shift change. It took 38 minutes before a correction alert was issued--something FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said is unacceptable, causing a wave of panic throughout the state.

False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies, Pai said in a statement issued Sunday. “Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii 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,” he added. “Federal, state, and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them. We also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”

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According to The Wall Street Journal, the system for sending out emergency alerts has now been changed to a system with two people involved, so the same kind of mistake couldn't happen again.

But as Pai noted in his statement, improvements in the emergency alert system are being pursued at the federal level. Even before Saturday’s incident, talk was underway at the FCC to revise the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which some say are transmitted too broadly. Pai has proposed new standards requiring wireless carriers to narrow the area in which they send out alerts, the WSJ noted.

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WEA was created by the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 and implemented by the FCC and FEMA in 2012.

Wireless providers voluntarily send WEA text messages with emergency information from public safety officials; all consumers with WEA-capable devices receive WEA unless the consumer chooses to opt out of imminent threat or Amber alerts. WEA initiation, content, scope and timing are all controlled by alert originators; wireless providers and FEMA serve only to transmit the message, CTIA noted in a recent presentation.