(FEMA photo)

Emergency Alerts Must Reach Targets and Learn from Mistakes, Congress Told

Emergency alerts need to keep up with the pace of technology and infamous errors, such as January’s false missile alarm in Hawaii, must be lessons to guide developers, House lawmakers heard Tuesday.

House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Chairman Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) noted that during the September 2016 dumpster bombing in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea the New York City Emergency Management Department sent out three messages to neighborhood residents: “one to alert individuals to shelter in place; two, once the situation was cleared; and the third one, to solicit the public’s help in locating the suspect.”

The Federal Communications Commission recently moved to require the delivery of alerts to 100 percent of the target area with no more than one-tenth of a mile overshoot. Participating wireless providers have to implement this more precise targeting by November 2019.

“Unfortunately, there have been erroneous emergency alerts sent to the public that undermine the confidence in the system and the messages that are shared. We saw an example of this just this morning, when an alert that was supposed to be test instead warned multiple locations on the East Coast that a tsunami was on its way,” Donovan said. The National Tsunami Warning Center of the National Weather Service said a test message was mistakenly sent out by a private provider to a wide range of customers.

“In addition, the erroneous emergency alert issued by the state of Hawaii on Jan. 13, 2018, warning residents and visitors of a ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii, has caused the same concern of ours,” the chairman added.

Ranking Member Donald Payne (D-N.J.) noted of the more than 33,000 wireless emergency alerts messages that have been sent out over the system’s lifespan, the majority have been weather-related “and were instrumental in saving lives during last year’s unusually active hurricane season and unprecedented wildfires.”

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System supports more than a thousand federal, state, local, tribal and territorial users, more than 26,000 radio, TV and cable connections, 63 cell phone carriers’ gateways and 73 internet vendors.

“Significantly, since 2012, 47 kidnapped children have been returned to their loved ones after an AMBER Alert was issued through the system, and members of the community help law enforcement locate perpetrators,” said Antwane Johnson, FEMA director of continuity communications.

Johnson noted that a FEMA subcommittee to the National Advisory Council is developing “recommendations on matters related to common alert and warning protocols, standards, terminology and operating procedures” based on feedback from stakeholders and “lessons learned” from last year’s natural disasters and the erroneous Hawaii missile alert.

Lisa Fowlkes, Federal Communications Commission chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, called Hawaii’s false missile alert “unacceptable.”

“It resulted in widespread panic, and the extended period it took to correct the error, nearly 40 minutes, compounded the problem,” she said. “Looking beyond the immediate consequences of the mistake, which were serious in and of themselves, this cry of wolf damaged the credibility of alert messaging, which can be dangerous when a real emergency occurs.”

The FCC’s investigation into that alert is ongoing, but preliminary findings, Fowlkes said, pinpoint “first, simple human error; second, the state did not have safeguards or process protocols in place to prevent that human error from resulting in the transmission of a false alert.”

Johnson suggested that the Hawaii error should spark “a broad public information campaign, both on the part of state and local government, to inform citizens of what these technologies are and what they mean to the public when these messages are received.”

Two-person validation on an emergency alert before the message is sent may not be the answer to preventing another false alert. Johnson said it “works in our major cities where their emergency operation centers are well-staffed and they have the personnel to perform that function,” but “it doesn’t work as well in rural areas where the chief of police in a single office may be the person who’s responsible for sending that message to the public and responds to any threat to public safety.”

Benjamin Krakauer, assistant commissioner for strategy and program development at New York City Emergency Management, told the committee that nearly 675,000 people have enrolled in Notify NYC, “and we have begun to see large increases through our recently released mobile application, which allows users to get messages based on their present location, has a mapping interface so users can view their location relative to the location of an emergency, and streamlines the enrollment process to promote user adoption.”

But “in a city of 8.5 million residents, it is not enough” registrations.

Upcoming planned enhancements to the federal wireless emergency alerts system include Spanish-language alerts and increasing the length of alert messages from 90 to 360 characters.

Krakauer said the system should be “multilingual beyond Spanish” and not allow consumers to opt out.

“We must have the ability to embed multimedia in WEA messages. This major gap was demonstrated when the NYPD needed the public’s assistance in locating the suspected Chelsea bomber before he detonated another device,” he said, noting just 45 percent of message recipients “took that extra step to look for the photograph” as the alert message asked them to click over to a media site to view the suspect’s image.

“False alerts and poorly targeted messages lead to consumer opt-outs and prevent people from receiving future messages that may save their life. We encourage Congress to change the law to eliminate the opt-out provision,” Krakauer told lawmakers.

Krakauer called the wireless emergency alerts system “one of the greatest advances in public alerting warning in our country’s history” but lamented that “the capability offered by WEA has not kept up with the advances in technology and with how people use their mobile phones.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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