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Hawaii’s False Missile Alarm Raises Question of Federal Control

‘States are the laboratories for democracy. They should not be laboratories for missile alerts’

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, talks with a reporter in the Capitol on Oct. 31, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, talks with a reporter in the Capitol on Oct. 31, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune voiced support Thursday for draft legislation aimed at preventing erroneous emergency alarms like the one that sent the state of Hawaii into a panic over a nonexistent ballistic missile attack on Jan. 13.

In the first of two hearings on the issue, the committee explored the status of the nation’s wireless emergency alert, or WEA, system established by a 2006 law. The committee will hold a field hearing in Hawaii to examine in detail the false missile attack messages sent out via mobile telephones and television and radio stations after being triggered — and not being corrected for about 40 minutes — by an employee of the state’s emergency management agency.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, said federal legislation is needed along with the procedural changes already adopted by his home state. Hawaii now requires two state employees — not a single worker — to sign off before sending emergency alerts.

Schatz said he was developing legislation that would eliminate state and local governments’ responsibility for issuing alerts related to military attacks, shifting that authority to the “agency that knows first and knows for sure” — the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. 

“States are the laboratories for democracy. They should not be laboratories for missile alerts,” Schatz said.

Thune praised the Schatz draft bill, adding it would mainly be under the jurisdiction of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  He said part of the bill may fall under his panel’s jurisdiction if it includes language directing the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that “best practices are used and adequate safeguards in place” in the WEA system.

“We need to make some changes at least with respect to the kind of order that was issued in Hawaii. The chain alert system needs to be modified to reflect the seriousness of the threat,” Thune said.

He asked Lisa M. Fowlkes, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau, about the reasoning behind the central role now played by states in handling missile attack warnings. The FCC has an oversight role and isn’t involved in the states’ decision-making for issuing warnings, she said, which they route to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a clearinghouse.

WEA, which handles alerts related to weather, natural disasters, civil emergencies and so-called AMBER alerts related to missing children, is part of a national emergency alert system dating to the 1950s.

Fowlkes said WEA provided 33,000 emergency alerts since its deployment in 2012, with roughly 21,000, or two-thirds, sent by the National Weather Service. She said the system operated successfully to deliver about 20 alerts related to wildfires in California last year, and provided numerous alerts related to the 2017 hurricanes, including 21 alerts in Puerto Rico.

Panel members also voiced interest in helping television station operators to roll out Next Gen TV, a new broadcast transmission standard that would be capable of turning on sleeping television sets in order to display emergency alerts. Sam Matheny, chief technology officer for the National Association of Broadcasters, urged lawmakers to help ensure that “new regulatory hurdles not be placed in our way.”

Scott Bergmann, senior vice president of CTIA, a mobile industry trade group, said that providers were working to improve the targeting of alerts to only the affected areas through WEA. He said providers had been involved in targeting messages to parts of counties — not just entire counties.

Thune said such efforts were important to “avert alert fatigue.”

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