Hawaiian Incident Highlights Vital Yet Tenuous Role of Public Safety Communications

FCC investigating accidental activation of Wireless Emergency Alert public safety system

“Emergency alert: Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” That chilling phrase was accidentally distributed by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) at 8:07 a.m. on Saturday Jan 13. to residents and visitors to the isolated island chain. What followed, according to extensive published reports, was a combination of fear, shock and helplessness that highlights the important role of public safety communications.

WEA AlertCNN shared the account of Lori Citro whose daughter lives in Hawaii. “I just melted down and cried and sobbed,” she said. “Couldn’t even think straight. Seemed like an eternity. I had a total meltdown at the restaurant sobbing crying and barely able to read the rest of the messages. The ‘good-byes, I love yous.’ My daughter was going to die, today, alone.”

An HI-EMA staffer, who has since been reassigned, sent the message in error after pressing the improper button during what was supposed to be an internal test of the state’s Wireless Emergency Alert system. By 8:10 a.m., State Adjutant Major General Joe Logan began the recall process after confirming there was no inbound missile. At 8:13 a cancellation was broadcast to stop the original message from continuing to be disseminated. Emergency management officials sent out a cancellation on Facebook and Twitter at 8:20 a.m.

The Wireless Emergency Alert system is administered by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Following the incident, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that a preliminary assessment suggests “the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert…Moving forward, we will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again. Federal, state, and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them. We also must ensure that corrections are issues immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”

The WEA went into effect in 2012 and has been used more than 30,000 times to issue alerts ranging from evacuation notifications, warnings or severe weather or, as was the case in Hawaii, notification of an incoming ballistic missile. Resulting from a partnership between mobile network operators, the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the WEA allows government officials to sent messages to mobile devices in designated geographic areas. More specifically, public safety officials use FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to transmit messages to carriers, who then pass the message on to mobile devices in the defined area.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) wrote on Twitter, “This system failed miserably and we need to start over.” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) used the opportunity to on one of the Sunday shows to highlight President Donald Trump administration’s tenuous relationship with North Korea, which is accelerating its nuclear ambitions. “The people of Hawaii should never have had to go through this,” she said on State of the Union. “The people America should not be faced with this threat right now. We need peace, not political bickering. We have to talk to North Korea and find a peaceful path to get rid of this nuclear threat.”

Regardless of whether it’s viewed as a failing of bureaucratic processes or an example of how global geopolitics impact our daily lives, this incident involving the Wireless Emergency Alert system serves as a stark reminder of the responsibility placed in public safety officials and the efficacy of wireless networks in providing people with potentially life-saving information. `

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