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FCC Blames Human Error, Poor Safeguards for False Hawaii Missile Alert

WASHINGTON — A preliminary FCC report concludes that a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards led to the transmission of a false missile alert in Hawaii on Jan. 13, creating a harrowing scene for residents as it took 38 minutes for a second message to be sent confirming that the alarm was false.

The warning officer who sent the message declined to be interviewed by FCC officials, but did send a written statement to the Hawaii EMA. The warning officer claimed to believe that it was a real emergency, the FCC said.

James Wiley , attorney adviser for the FCC, said that the warning officer “apparently failed to recognize that this was an exercise even though the other warning officers on duty understood that this was not a real emergency.”

“We’re not in a position to fully evaluate the credibility” of the assertion that the officer “believed there was an actual missile threat and intentionally sent the live alert,” Wiley said.

The message, transmitted to wireless devices, read, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency posted a message on Twitter 12 minutes later that read, “NO missile threat to Hawaii.” But it took another 25 minutes for a false alarm message to be sent, informing residents that there was no missile threat.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai quickly launched an investigation, and Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency said that an employee selected the wrong template to send out the message during a test drill — as it went out live rather than to an internal system.

On Tuesday, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau unveiled the preliminary results of its investigation.

Wiley said that they found a number of faults with the state agency, including that the software template did not more clearly distinguish between a live and test environment, a lack of supervision, and a dearth of procedures for what to do when there were false alerts. The governor of Hawaii, David Ige, has said that there was a delay in his own ability to respond on Twitter because he could not find his password.

Wiley said that “there were no procedures in place to prevent a single person from mistakenly sending a missile alert to the State of Hawaii.

“While such an alert addressed a matter of the utmost gravity, there was no requirement in place for a warning officer to double check with a colleague or get signoff from a supervisor before sending such an alert,” he said.

The FCC investigation traced the chain of events to miscommunication between the Hawaii EMA’s midnight shift supervisor and the day shift supervisor so that the drill was run without proper supervision. Moreover, he said that the state EMA has been conducting “no-notice” drills, rather than giving advance notice, which is more common among emergency management agencies.

Pai said that “the only things that struck the island on Jan. 13 were panic, and then outrage.” He said that the investigation had shown that Hawaii did not have “reasonable safeguards” in place to prevent human error and “no plan for what to do if a false alert were transmitted.”

Other commissioners also called for ensuring that something like the Hawaii alert doesn’t happen again. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said that “it was astounding that no one was hurt in this incident.”

“We need real changes in place on an accelerated schedule,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Wiley said that the Hawaii EMA has taken a number of corrective steps, including a requirement that two credentialed warning officers “sign in and validate the transmission of every alert and test.” It also has created a “false alert correction template” to correct a false alert.

The FCC also voted on Tuesday to require that wireless providers deliver emergency alerts to a more precise geographic area. Starting on Nov. 30, 2019, wireless providers will be required to deliver alerts to no more than 1/10th of a mile of the target area. It also requires that the alerts remain on wireless devices for 24 hours, or until a consumer decides to delete the message.

(Pictured: David Ige)

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