After False Alert, FEMA Focused on Improved Training, Software
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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

After False Alert, FEMA Focused on Improved Training, Software

In the wake of last month’s false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii (TR Daily, Jan. 16), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is focusing on ensuring improvements are made on a number of fronts, including training and the software used by states and localities that send alerts, a FEMA official told a House subcommittee at a hearing today.

A report released by Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) last week concluded that “insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors” contributed to the false Hawaii alert and the 38-minute delay in correcting it (TR Daily, Jan. 30). A preliminary report by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau the same day said that “a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to this false alert.”

Antwane Johnson, director-continuity communications at FEMA, told the House Homeland Security Committee’s emergency preparedness, response, and communications subcommittee this morning that recommendations for implementing improvements in the wake of the Hawaii alert will be developed as part of an Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) subcommittee that FEMA established under its National Advisory Council (NAC) pursuant to the IPAWS Modernization Act of 2015. The subcommittee is scheduled to deliver modernization recommendations to the NAC this fall.

“We are conducting an after-action review of the events of Jan. 13,” Mr. Johnson said.

He said FEMA has met with the software vendor whose products are used by Hawaii and 47 other state and local governments to send alerts. The vendor is rolling out an improvement in the software this week to help prevent false alerts in the future, he said. He said software that requires “validation checks” before an alert can be sent can help prevent false alerts.

Mr. Johnson said the original software used by alert originators did not have a cancel function so in 2015 FEMA issued recommendations for software vendors. Mr. Johnson said that two-person validation, where two people have to be involved in transmitting an alert, can be useful, saying that is the practice in many major cities. But he said that smaller agencies may not have adequate staffing to implement the safeguard. “It doesn’t work as well in rural areas.”

FEMA also is looking to see if training is adequate, including whether state and local alert originators know what to do if an alert is sent in error, Mr. Johnson said.

“We were already undergoing a complete review of our training courses that are hosted by the Federal Emergency Management Institute,” Mr. Johnson said.

He noted that alert originators must take an IPAWS course, and that FEMA has a lab in Maryland that state and local personnel can use to stay proficient in alerting software and procedures.

Rep. Donald Payne (D., N.J.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, asked whether FEMA might impose additional training requirements.

Mr. Johnson said FEMA will consider making additional training available to state and local representatives, including “refresher training on an annual basis.”

Mr. Johnson noted that HI-EMA “was not prepared for” sending out a corrected alert. If the state was concerned about its authority to send such a message or what kind of message to send, which officials there said they were, “that points back, in my opinion, to some of our training offerings,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson also stressed that broader public education about alerts would be useful, including incorporating the public in the testing program.

Lisa Fowlkes, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety Bureau, noted that the bureau’s probe of the false alert is continuing, and she said that it might issue recommendations to prevent future such incidents when it is concluded. She also said the agency would work with FEMA to engage stakeholders and encourage the use of best practices.

“The Commission is also looking into the recent tsunami alerts issued following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska on January 23rd to better understand how the Wireless Emergency Alert system performed,” Ms. Fowlkes said. “We are aware that questions have arisen about who received the alerts and who didn’t, both with respect to carriers’ participation in WEA and with respect to the geographic distribution of the alert, and we will seek answers.”

Members of the subcommittee expressed concern that false alerts in Hawaii and elsewhere will erode the trust that the public has in alerts, putting them in danger when there are actual emergencies. They also urged the FCC to continue to adopt enhancements to WEAs.

“Ultimately, for public alerts and warnings to be effective, the public has to trust them. This is why last month’s false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii was so troubling. I am concerned that a single employee was able to issue the alert in the first place, and that it took nearly forty minutes to issue a ‘false alarm’ message over the platform,” Rep. Payne said. “That said, false alerts are not limited to Hawaii. During a routine test of the emergency alert system last month, a false alert announcing an ‘emergency’ in Morris County, New Jersey, interrupted programming for certain cable subscribers last month. After Hurricane Irma hit Florida last year, an alert issued in error by a state employee directed residents to boil their water, causing hours of confusion.”

“Unfortunately, there have been erroneous emergency alerts sent to the public that undermines confidence in the system and the messages that are shared. We saw an example just this morning when an alert that was supposed to be a test instead warned multiple locations on the east coast that a tsunami was on its way,” said Rep. Dan Donovan (R., N.Y.), the subcommittee’s chairman, referring to a monthly Tsunami warning test that some users received as an actual warning.

As for the false Hawaii alert, Rep. Donovan said that he is “interested in hearing more about the training and certification for message originators to ensure proper use of the system. In addition, I am interested to know more about the safeguards that should have been in place, and what, if anything, needs to be done at a federal level to make sure that this never happens again.”

He also praised the FCC for adopting enhanced WEA geo-targeting requirements for participating carriers last week (TR Daily, Jan. 30), but he pressed the Commission “to take action on multimedia alerts, ‘many to one’ feedback, and multilingual messaging to further the effectiveness of alerts and warnings.”

“Last month’s disturbing false alert about an incoming missile in Hawaii revealed gaps related to training, policy, and procedure for issuing alerts and warnings,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D., Miss.), ranking member of the full committee. He also said that the FCC should require carriers to support alerts in languages other than English and Spanish.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) said that alerts “should be raised to a federal level, establishing protocols.”

Witness Benjamin Krakauer, assistant commissioner-strategy and program development for the New York City Emergency Management Department, also had praise for the FCC’s enhanced geo-targeting mandate.

“While these are enhancements are long overdue and welcomed, the new rules do not go far enough and continue to limit the effectiveness of the WEA system,” he added. “Missing from the FCC’s latest order is multimedia alerting, ‘many-to-one’ communication, and multilingual alerting beyond Spanish. Further, the law still permits consumers to opt out of receiving WEA messages, except those issued by the President of the United States.” He said Congress should change the law to prevent such opt-outs.

Mr. Krakauer also said the federal government should consider making warnings of attacks from “state actors” a federal responsibility.

Peter Gaynor, director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, said his staff has worked to redouble its training efforts and focus on redundancies and safety measures, including being able to recall any alerts, since the Hawaii incident. “We’ve gone back to square one,” he added.

Mr. Payne assured witnesses that the lawmakers will use information voiced at today’s hearing “to craft legislation in the future.”

As for what actions witnesses would like Congress to take, Scott Bergmann, senior vice president-regulatory affairs for CTIA, cited making more spectrum available, facilitating the deployment of wireless infrastructure, and promoting alerting best practices, while Sam Matheny, executive vice president and chief technology officer for the National Association of Broadcasters, urged passage of the Viewer and Listener Protection Act, which would provide additional repacking funding for TV stations, if needed, while also assisting impacted radio stations.—Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

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