tsunami (Tancha/Shutterstock.com)

Another false emergency alert ahead of House hearing

Some east coast residents woke up Feb. 6 to a tsunami alert, mistakenly sent by a private company. Intended as a test, the alert was sent at 8:30 a.m. by AccuWeather, according to the National Weather Service.

“We have been notified that some users received this test message as an actual Tsunami Warning,” the agency later tweeted. “A Tsunami Warning is not in effect.”

For its part, AccuWeather said a National Weather Service coding error caused the test alert to be sent as a real warning, according to The Post and Courier.

Not two hours after the false alert was sent, lawmakers convened in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center to talk about a similar incident that occurred earlier this year in Hawaii. In that case, residents were incorrectly told a ballistic missile was headed toward the state. The warning system more commonly used for Amber alerts and weather emergencies sent messages to phones across the state. It took almost 40 minutes to fix the error. One of the state’s senator’s described the incident as “harrowing.”

“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,” Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) said in a Feb. 6 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee. “At the very least, we expect that the alerts that come through on our devices are timely, accurate and only sent when necessary.”

The alert in Hawaii was broadcast over the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, which is largely overseen by Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA provides states with the authorization to send alerts, but private companies provide the software emergency managers use to create and send the messages to telecom and broadcast companies.

FEMA's Director of Continuity Communications Antwane Johnson testified that the agency was working directly with the software vendor providing Hawaii’s interface for sending these kinds of emergency alerts. FEMA has been advised not to disclose the vendor, Johnson told GCN after his testimony.

“We have meet with and talked to the vendor that provides that software application tool to the state of Hawaii as well as 47 other state and local governments,” Johnson told lawmakers. “They will be rolling out, this week, improvements to their system for their software to prevent … these types of errors from occurring in the future.”

Those improvements are largely in the design of the user interface. The screen of the test environment will be a different color than that of the live environment, as will buttons and other features.

“When you go live that’s going to be a different screen, and there’s going to be some additional checks in the software that will clearly articulate to the user that you’re in a live environment,” Johnson said.

Lisa M. Fowlkes, the chief of the public safety and homeland security bureau for the Federal Communications Commission, told lawmakers Hawaii didn’t have a process in place to send out a correction to an alert, and that’s why it took so long for the accurate information to get out.

“They never contemplated that they would have a false alert.” Fowlkes said. Someone from the [Hawaii Emergency Management Agency] had to write the correction and call FEMA to get the code needed to send it.

A plan for how to issue a correction is now in place, Johnson said.

The day before the hearing, the employee who issued the false alert and has since been fired spoke with some media organizations.

"I thought 100 percent it was real," he said, according to CNN. He added that the words "exercise, exercise, exercise" were never spoken, and he only heard, “This is not a drill.”

The FCC has spoken with people in the room at the time who said "exercise, exercise, exercise" was indeed part of the message, Fowlkes told lawmakers. The script still should not have said, “This is not a drill,” she said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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