Pai: FCC ‘On the Ground’ in Hawaii Probing False Alert

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today that investigators from the FCC “are on the ground in Hawaii today gathering information” in the wake of a false ballistic missile notification that was transmitted last weekend via wireless emergency alert (WEA) and the Emergency Alert System (EAS) (TR Daily, Jan. 16), while Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also stressed the importance of preventing future false alerts and said changes should be adopted before summer. “This incident highlights the need for our alerting system to work properly and for alerts to convey accurate information to the public,” Mr. Pai emphasized this morning during remarks at a National Association of Broadcasters’ event on the role of broadcasters during emergencies. “The FCC has already begun an investigation.  We want to understand how this mistake occurred, why it took 38 minutes for the state of Hawaii to issue a correction alert, and what needs to be done to ensure that this does not happen again, in Hawaii or elsewhere.  Indeed, FCC investigators are on the ground in Hawaii today gathering information.”

Mr. Pai noted that “broadcasters simply transmit emergency alerts to the public.  They don’t have any input into the content of those alerts.  The substance of an alert is determined by the federal, state, or local government that originates the alert.  So broadcasters, like the viewing or listening public, depend upon government to get it right.  And in this instance, the Hawaiian government unfortunately didn’t.”

On other alerting issues, Mr. Pai said he is pleased that broadcasters during the past hurricane season began using new weather-related alerts and he urged them to also employ the new Blue Alert, which can be used to warn the public related to a law enforcement officer who is missing, has been injured or killed, or is under threat.

As for the resiliency of communications networks, he said the FCC wants to hear from broadcasters in response to a public notice released by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau last month on the preparation for and response to the 2017 hurricane season (TR Daily, Dec. 7, 2017).” Mr. Pai also highlighted the benefits during emergencies of the ATSC 3.0 next-generation TV standard, which the FCC authorized in November (TR Daily, Nov. 16, 2017).

“For instance, today you only receive emergency alerts via broadcast television if your receiver is turned on.  But ATSC 3.0 has the capability to send a signal that will wake up sleeping devices so that all consumers will be warned of imminent emergencies even if their device is turned off.  And those warnings can be sent in multiple languages,” he said. “Another feature of ATSC 3.0 is the ability to target the warnings and relevant information to particular areas.  If there is an emergency that only affects part of a metropolitan area, such as a tornado, the warning can be sent only to those affected spots.  The FCC decided to encourage this kind of innovation because we don’t think we should hold back the development of new services and applications that can benefit consumers.  And I hope that broadcasters too won’t hold back in taking advantage of this opportunity to innovate.”

Ms. Rosenworcel dedicated most of her remarks at the NAB event to discussing the false Hawaii alert. “To get to the bottom of what happened and help ensure it never happens again, the Chairman announced an immediate investigation. This is a good thing — and it was the right call. As a result, Commission staff have been in close contact with federal and state officials, gathering facts about how this false alert was issued,” she noted. “While initial reports suggest human error played a significant role, there are many actors at the federal and state level who can take concrete steps to improve alerting protocols. We need to look at everything from state training and practices to improved user interfaces for public safety that can reduce the likelihood of error.

“We need to understand why it took a full 38 minutes to fully correct this false alarm. We also need to consider how the Commission can help develop best practices for alerts that can be used by federal, state, and local authorities,” she added. “Moreover, the Commission can encourage the use of best practices through the EAS state plans that are already required for annual filing at the agency. In addition, the Commission should work with our colleagues at FEMA to align traditional daisy chain reporting practices with newer federal alert aggregation capabilities. Finally, we need to act with urgency. We should commit right now to having changes in place before the Summer begins.”

Ms. Rosenworcel also said that during “this review, we need the broadcasting community at the table. That’s true in our investigation in Washington and it’s true in what the state government is pulling together, pursuant to the Executive Order of [Hawaii] Governor [David Y.] Ige [D.] appointing Brigadier General Kenneth Hara to oversee a comprehensive review of emergency management practices in Hawaii. Public sector efforts to remedy what went wrong will only go so far if they do not also include the private sector actors entrusted with getting the word out. And no one has a longer history and deeper commitment to getting the word out than our nation’s broadcasters.

“To be clear, false alerts like this are not unique to Hawaii,” Ms. Rosenworcel added. “On a smaller scale they have occurred before — and just recently in Polk County, Iowa and Riverside County, California — and can occur again if we don’t heed the lessons learned from this incident.” The Commissioner also renewed her call for the FCC to hold hearings on last year’s devastating hurricanes. “It is time for the Commission to commit to hearings and a report making clear what worked, what didn’t and what steps we can take to improve our communications vulnerabilities in the wake of Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma,” she said. “After all, there’s precedent for this approach. It’s exactly what was done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. I know we learned from those events and as a result our communications systems are stronger and more resilient. I bet, there are lessons, too, to be learned here. I also bet that the role of broadcasters in keeping communities safe was a big one — and I want us to do what we can to ensure that continues.”

Mr. Pai has left open the possibility that the FCC may hold hearings on the response to the hurricanes (TR Daily, Nov 2, 2017).- Paul Kirby,

Courtesy TRDaily