House Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Hawaii Missile False Alarm, Emergency Alerts

WASHINGTON—A House subcommittee tasked with overseeing emergency communications heard from the FCC and FEMA on Tuesday, Feb. 6, about the Jan. 13 Hawaii false missile warning as well as from wireless and broadcast industry representatives and state emergency managers about the status of the nation’s emergency alerting systems.

“Considering the technological advances that have been made over the past decade, we have high expectations for what our phones, tablets and computers can do,” said Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee chairman Dan Donovan (R-NY) during opening remarks. “At the very least, we expect that the alerts that come through on our devices are timely, accurate and only sent when necessary,”

Front and center was the errant missile attack warning issued by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Lisa Fowlkes, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau called the false alarm “unacceptable.”

“It resulted in widespread panic and the extended period it took to correct the error—nearly 40 minutes—compounded the problem,” she said. “This cry of wolf damaged the alert messaging, which can be dangerous when a real emergency occurs.” Fowlkes informed the committee that the FCC has issued a preliminary report on the incident after dispatching investigators to Hawaii.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who is not a member of the subcommittee, asked to participate in the hearing. She inquired about reports that the Hawaii state employee who was responsible for sending the errant message maintains that it was real. She also asked for more information about the process used to cancel messages and the lack of safeguards.

In reply, Fowlkes walked the subcommittee through what the agency’s investigators found in Hawaii and covered much of what was unearthed in the agency’s preliminary report, including information from state emergency management that the warning officer did not hear the “exercise, exercise, exercise” warning at the beginning and end of the simulated call from Pacific Command but heard only the “this is not a drill” phrase in the message. Fowlkes also explained that cancelling emergency messages does not trigger an all-clear, but rather, stops a message from being continuously transmitted via EAS and WEA.

Antwane Johnson, director of continuity communications at FEMA, said that the uncertainty Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency had over the type of message that should be used to correct its error points back at the training his agency provides. “And that’s where we are going to address this, through training, increased awareness and working with our federal, state and local partners,” he said.

The subcommittee also heard from Benjamin Krakauer, assistant commissioner, strategy and program development at New York City Emergency Management, Peter Gaynor, director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, Scott Bergmann, CTIA SVP regulatory affairs and NAB CTO Sam Matheny.

During his testimony, Matheny concisely laid out the unique strengths of broadcasting as an emergency alerting medium.

“First, broadcasting covers virtually everyone—broadcast signals reach more of the U.S. population than any other communication medium,” he said. Matheny also pointed to the local nature of broadcasting to deliver market-specific information and alerts; the lack of bottlenecks created by network congestion; the resiliency and redundancy of stations and equipment; the ability of radio and TV to provide enough information for the public to understand the exact nature of an emergency and what steps to take; and broadcasters’ status as members of the communities they serve.

Matheny reminded the subcommittee that about 1,000 TV broadcasters are currently in the process of moving to new channel assignments as part of the FCC’s spectrum auction and repack. The work needed to replace TV antennas and make other tower changes will impact 700 FM stations as well, he said. “Broadcasters need the time and money required to make these moves successfully, and without impairing the public’s ability to access emergency alerts,” said Matheny.

The NAB CTO also explained to subcommittee members that the newly authorized ATSC 3.0 TV standard will enable advanced emergency alerts to be transmitted to the public. Saying that new regulatory hurdles should not be put in the path of broadcasters as they deploy ATSC 3.0, Matheny explained that next-generation TV will enable “the ability to wake up sleeping devices, more precise geo-targeted alerts and sending rich multimedia files, such as weather radar images, evacuation maps and even video files with detailed explanations about the emergency and what to do.”

CTIA’s Bergman told the subcommittee that since WEA’s inauguration five years ago, wireless emergency alerts “have become an essential tool for the hundreds of millions of Americans who rely on their mobile phones every day.” The wireless industry has improved WEA capabilities since the system’s initial launch and is committed to implementing enhancements adopted by the FCC last week, including improved geo-targeting down to the cell level, he said.

Referencing the Hawaii false alarm, Bergman said the integrity of WEA messages remains the foundation for the public’s trust in the system. “Wireless carriers do not control the content of emergency messages,” he said, adding that neither do they have discretion over whether to send them. However, the CTIA representative assured the subcommittee that the wireless industry is committed to the security of its networks.

New York City’s Krakauer said more must be done to update WEA. While calling it “one of the greatest advances in public alert and warning in our country’s history,” he said, “the capability offered by WEA has not kept up with advances in technology” and the way people use their mobile phones.

High on his list of deficiencies is WEA’s inability to send multimedia alerts. Krakauer recalled the 2016 Chelsea bombing that wounded 31 people. Without multimedia alerting, the WEA system could only send a description of the suspect and alert the public to check local media to see a picture of the bomber. Only 45 percent of the public took the extra step of going to their TVs to look at the picture, he added. Other areas of concern to Krakauer included the lack of many-to-one communication and multilingual alerting beyond Spanish, he said.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.