KAHULUI, HI — That question was addressed by Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at a Thursday (4/5) field hearing held in Honolulu by the Senate Commerce Committee, as part of its efforts to fully understand why a false missile alert was issued — and received by many smartphone owners — across Hawai’i on the morning of January 13.
With Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz joined by Committee Chairman John Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson in attendance, along with Hawaii’s other senator, Mazie Hirono, and Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard, Rosenworcel noted that when it comes to the most critical aspect of our communications—those involving emergency alerts—the Commission bears a special responsibility.
She noted that the FCC sets technical requirements for both the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts, and that this informs the work of others across government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But, she noted, “the bottom line for every entity involved is that the public needs confidence in the systems that warn us when the unthinkable occurs.”
That brought Rosenworcel to the morning of Saturday, January 13, when many Hawaiians awoke to ominous messages “flashing on their mobile phones, streaming in from social media, booming from radio stations, and lighting up their television screens.”
Both Hawaii News Now and stations owned by Pacific Media Group vetted the erroneous messages while explaining to viewers and listeners what was happening; the messages included “the haunting words ‘This is not a drill’,” Rosenworcel recalled.
When this incident occurred, Rosenworcel reached out to friends and former colleagues in Hawaii to understand what happened. “They had only harrowing stories to tell,” she said. “I
still can’t quite imagine it—being told you have only minutes left to live and knowing everything you hold dear could be destroyed. When the threat was over I am sure that people in Hawaii held their children a little bit closer. I know I did the same that night.”
After the false missile alert, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai swiftly called for an investigation.
“It was the right thing to do,” Rosenworcel says. “The agency staff got to work, as did officials in Hawaii who conducted their own investigation.”
These investigations revealed that this false alert could have been avoided and its
effects could have been mitigated.
“There were serious failures at the point of alert origination—the Hawaii Emergency
Management Agency,” she said. “These errors were human and operational. There appears to have been a miscommunication between personnel that fateful morning; there was an apparent deviation from the script of the agency’s drill procedure; there was a human failure to recognize that a drill was being conducted. These problems were compounded by a lack of safeguards to ensure that a false alert would not be transmitted. There were no secondary checks to prevent one person from mistakenly sending an alert to the entire state. There were no software checks to differentiate between testing and live alert environments. To make matters worse, it took a full 38 minutes to issue an alert correction—and there were no preexisting systems to do so. None of this is acceptable.”
Rosenworcel noted that false alerts were also seen, although to a less grave extent, in Polk County, Iowa and Riverside County, Calif., during the past year.
“In short, it can happen anywhere,” she said.
So what can the FCC do about it?
“We need ideas to fix these problems,” Rosenworcel said ahead of offering her ideas.
“First, state Emergency Alert System plans are filed with the FCC,” she noted. “They are subject to annual confirmation. We should make this process a meaningful one by making sure every plan is up to date. The Hawaii plan was over a decade old. The FCC can help prevent this from happening by serving as a convening force to report current best practices—including security protocols—at the local, state, and federal level and then support their inclusion in annual filings.
“Second, the FCC should know when false alerts occur. The FCC should have a reporting
system for false alerts—to learn when and where they happen and to prevent them from
“Third, the FCC should explore future alert capabilities, from embedded multimedia to
many-to-one communications enabling public feedback. The agency also should also explore the viability of offering alerts to audio and video streaming services.”
Rosenworcel offered a fourth idea by stepping out of her jurisdiction.
“We need to address failures at the alert origination point,” she concluded. “To this end, the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act of 2018 proposes important improvements, including clear lines of responsibility when it comes to missile threats.”
— Reporting by Amber Hunt, from Maui