FCC Commissioners stressed today the importance of preventing false alerts like the ballistic missile alert sent in error in Hawaii earlier this month (TR Daily, Jan. 16), saying that the incident there should lead to best practices that can be used by alert originators and other stakeholders. Their comments came as FCC staff reported that the alert was sent in error due to a misunderstanding about whether there was actually a ballistic missile attack.
Meanwhile, Hawaii officials released a report today that concluded that “insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors” contributed to the false alert and the delayed response in correcting it. The report echoed conclusions in a preliminary report released today by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
At today’s monthly FCC meeting, Commissioners received the preliminary report from the Public Safety Bureau on its investigation of the early-morning false alert, which was transmitted through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and wireless emergency alerts (WEAs). The alert was transmitted shortly after 8 a.m. on Jan. 13 and it took officials 38 minutes to send out a corrected alert. The information provided by the bureau today was the most detailed yet from the FCC about the incident. The bureau stressed that its investigation is ongoing.
James Wiley, an attorney-adviser in the Public Safety Bureau’s Cybersecurity and Communications Reliability Division, explained how the false alert was sent during a ballistic missile alert drill that took place during a change from the midnight to the day shifts at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA). Due to a “miscommunication,” “the day shift supervisor was not in the proper location to supervise the day shift warning officers when the ballistic missile defense drill was initiated,” he said.
“At 8:05 a.m., the midnight shift supervisor initiated the drill by placing a call to the day shift warning officers, pretending to be U.S. Pacific Command,” according to Mr. Wiley. “The supervisor played a recorded message over the phone. The recording began by saying ‘exercise, exercise, exercise,’ language that is consistent with the beginning of the script for the drill. After that, however, the recording did not follow the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s standard operating procedures for this drill. Instead, the recording included language scripted for use in an Emergency Alert System message for an actual live ballistic missile alert. It thus included the sentence ‘this is not a drill.’ The recording ended by saying again, ‘exercise, exercise, exercise.’ Three on-duty warning officers in the agency’s watch center received this message, simulating a call from U.S. Pacific Command on speakerphone.
“According to a written statement from the day shift warning officer who initiated the alert, as relayed to the Bureau by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the day shift warning officer heard ‘this is not a drill’ but did not hear ‘exercise, exercise, exercise.’ According to the written statement, this day shift warning officer therefore believed that the missile threat was real. At 8:07 a.m., this officer responded by transmitting a live incoming ballistic missile alert to the State of Hawaii. … Other warning officers who heard the recording in the watch center report that they knew that the erroneous incoming message did not indicate a real missile threat, but was supposed to indicate the beginning of an exercise.” Continue reading