Lawmakers Express Frustration at False Missile Alert Hearing
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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Lawmakers Express Frustration at False Missile Alert Hearing

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation expressed frustration at a field hearing today with the false ballistic missile alert sent in the state in January (TR Daily, Jan. 13), saying it has damaged the public’s confidence in alerts, and stressed the need for action to ensure that one never occurs again, including by requiring the Department of Defense to transmit missile alerts in the future.

Today’s hearing was held by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s communications, technology, innovation, and the Internet subcommittee, but it featured only one member of the committee, Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii). The other lawmakers at the hearing were Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D., Hawaii) and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii) and Colleen Hanabusa (D., Hawaii).

The false alert was sent via the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and by wireless emergency alert (WEA) by a shift warning officer at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) who thought the alert was real instead of only a test. It took the agency 38 minutes to send a corrected alert, although authorities used social media and the news media to get the word out earlier that the alert was not correct.

In their opening statements and during questioning of witnesses at today’s hearing, the senators and House members described the threats that Hawaii faces from North Korea missile strikes and the fear that consumed the public after the false alert was sent. They also complained that it took 38 minutes to send a corrected alert and they said changes must be made to ensure that a false alert is not sent again.

“It will take all of us working together to ensure that we have learned the right lessons from this incident,” said Sen. Hirono.

“What happened on Jan. 23 was a wake-up call,” Rep. Gabbard said.

Rep. Hanabusa said lawmakers want to provide “a least some sense of public confidence again.”

In her testimony, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC should make sure that state EAS plans that are filed with the Commission are up to date. “The Hawaii plan was over a decade old,” she said. “The FCC can help prevent this from happening by serving as a convening force to report current best practices — including security protocols — at the local, state, and federal level and then support their inclusion in annual filings.” Ms. Rosenworcel also said that “the FCC should know when false alerts occur. The FCC should have a reporting system for false alerts — to learn when and where they happen and to prevent them from happening again.”

She also said that “the FCC should explore future alert capabilities, from embedded multimedia to many-to-one communications enabling public feedback. The agency also should also explore the viability of offering alerts to audio and video streaming services.”

Finally, she said, there is a “need to address failures at the alert origination point. To this end, the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act of 2018 proposes important improvements, including clear lines of responsibility when it comes to missile threats.” The legislation (S 2385) would grant the federal government the sole authority to issue alerts of missile alerts. The bill was introduced by Sens. Schatz and Hirono and others in February (TR Daily, Feb. 7).

Lawmakers expressed interest in whether the FCC’s role in accepting state plans was merely perfunctory and whether the agency requires that annual filings update prior plans, or allows states to file the same exact plan year after year.

Commissioner Rosenworcel indicated that FCC just checks to make sure the plans are filed and that they are complete, and does not require any updates.

Sen. Schatz noted that phone lines were “jammed” during the false alert in Hawaii. Commissioner Rosenworcel mentioned Government Emergency Telecommunications Services (GETS) priority access, and Sen. Schatz noted that while “the GETS card is available for government leaders, ... a lot of us didn’t know about it. I think that 38 minutes [delay in correcting the false alert] would have been a lot briefer if any of us had had access to each other.”

Sen. Schatz noted that “if you’re watching Hulu or Netflix, you don’t get the [emergency] alert on the screen.” He also said that emergency alert tickers “should run continuously” for an event like a missile alert.

Commissioner Rosenworcel said, “I don’t think emergency wireless alerts or emergency alerts for traditional media are well-calibrated” to the viewing practices in an age of multiple screens with anytime access to a variety of platforms. She added, “I see a gap with respect to traditional media and broadcast and cable alerts, because those can be on once,” and not repeated, so viewers could miss them.

Sen. Hirono asked whether other states have the capability to issue alerts about missile strikes.

Commissioner Rosenworcel said, “I don’t have specific information [on that, but] I do not believe other states are prepared.” She added the “legislation to make sure ballistic missile strikes are alerted at the federal level” would be a good thing.

Sen. Hirono asked whether there is a proposal for the FCC to create a reporting system for false alerts

“I believe the FCC should have a reporting system for false alerts. We don’t have one now,” the Commissioner said.

Sen. Hirono asked whether such reporting should occur in real time.

Commissioner Rosenworcel said, “We would need to consider the appropriate reporting time. I think the first priority needs to be making sure that people who got false information get corrected information,” rather than complying with “bureaucratic” reporting requirements.

Rep. Hanabusa asked about false reports in other states, and whether any were for missile strikes.

Ms. Rosenworcel said they were not. “One was a direction to shelter in place; another was to evacuate that was not necessary.”

Rep. Hanabusa asked how long corrections took in those instances, but the Commissioner said she didn’t have that information.

Rep. Hanabusa asked about the age of state plans and any requirements or plans for updating them.

Commissioner Rosenworcel said the FCC could help with making sure plans are up to date. “There would be a lot of benefit in figuring out best practices,” she added.

She said that “how to correct a false alert should be part of any plan.”

Rep. Gabbard asked whether Hawaii’s annual submission was the same plan that was never updated.

Commissioner Rosenworcel said yes, referring to the situation as “benign neglect.”

“That’s all that’s required by FCC, that a plan exists?” Rep. Gabbard asked. The Commissioner said yes.

Rep. Gabbard asked why WEA participation is optional.

“The Warning Alert and Response Network Act makes it voluntary,” Ms. Rosenworcel responded. “To change that would require a change in the law.”

Rep. Gabbard asked how to address the problem that consumers don’t know if their wireless carriers participate in WEA. The Commissioner said that the WARN Act could be changed to require that that information be available to consumers.

Nicole McGinnis, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, noted that the bureau presented a preliminary report to Commissioners on Jan. 30 on its investigation of the false Hawaii alert (TR Daily, Jan. 30).

“The Bureau is finalizing its final report and expects to release it in the near future,” she said. “We expect that the final report will confirm the Bureau’s preliminary findings: The false alert in Hawaii and HI-EMA’s delay in correcting it was due to a combination of human error and the lack of effective operating procedures and safeguards.”

She summarized what she said are key findings in the final report as well as recommendations for minimizing the risks of false alerts in the future.

“First, human error occurred on many levels. For example, one error was the use of a recording to initiate the drill that contained the text of an EAS message for a live ballistic missile alert, including the language, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” While the recorded message also contained the language “EXERCISE EXERCISE EXERCISE,” the employee tasked with issuing the alert submitted a written statement to HI-EMA stating that he mistakenly believed the exercise was, in fact, a real event,” Ms. McGinnis said. “Another error was the result of miscommunication between the outgoing and incoming shift supervisors as to which shift would perform the test during the shift change.”

“Second, the procedures to prevent or correct the false alarm were not adequate,” she noted. “For example, HI-EMA lacked procedures to prevent a single person from mistakenly issuing a live missile alert. Given that the employee issuing the alert was the only one under the mistaken impression that the event was real, requiring sign off of a second warning officer would have prevented the false alert. Equally significant, the checklist used during the January 13 exercise lacked any protocol for correcting a false alert with an ‘all clear’ or similar message to the public. Clear protocols for not just cancellation, but also for prompt correction of a false alert over the same systems used to issue the alert would have reduced the public panic that ensued in the extensive time following the false alert.”

Ms. McGinnis added that the bureau’s final report will note that most “EAS participants received the alert within seconds and retransmitted it. From a technical perspective, this was exactly as the system is designed to work. Those that did not relay the alert did not have their equipment set to ‘auto-forward’ the message, which we understand is being addressed and that such messages will now be auto-forwarded going forward. The four nationwide wireless carriers offering service in Hawaii also received and transmitted the WEA alert within seconds. Neither EAS nor WEA is designed such that a carrier or participant would have the discretion to question whether an alert was erroneous. Although reports suggest that some consumers did not receive the alert, there are several reasons why this might have been the case, including lack of access to a wireless signal or having the device powered off during the time the alert was sent and cancelled, which would have impacted the receipt of the message.”

Ms. McGinnis mentioned recommendations that are among those that will be included in the final report, saying that HI-EMA has implemented or is implementing many of them.

They include (1) “[c]onducting regular internal tests in a controlled and closed environment, such as the FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Test Lab”; (2) “[r]equiring more than one credentialed person to validate message content prior to transmission of high-impact alerts that affect a significant percentage of the population”; (3) “[i]mplementing specific upgrades to alerting software to separate live environments from test environments, including clearer prompting language distinguishing live and test messages”; (4) “[d]eveloping and memorializing standard operating procedures for responding to false alerts within their jurisdictions, including specifying that corrections to false alerts must be issued over the same systems used to issue the false alert, including the EAS and WEA, as well as other available means”; and (5) “[c]onsulting with state emergency communications committees (SECCs) on a regular basis — at least annually — to ensure that EAS procedures, including initiation and cancellation of actual alerts and tests, are mutually understood, agreed upon, and documented in the State EAS Plan.”

The bureau’s “final report will also make recommendations addressing the incorporation of social media within standard operating procedures, notifying the media of false alerts, establishing redundant lines of communications, and use of priority communications tools,” Ms. McGinnis added. “The Bureau intends to follow up on these recommendations by engaging in additional outreach, in coordination with our partners at FEMA, to encourage the use of these best practices, including a planned webinar and roundtable.”

She also noted that “the Commission continues to work to improve EAS and WEA. For example, the Commission recently adopted new rules that require State EAS Plans be updated annually and be filed in a streamlined electronic database, the Alert Reporting System. By replacing paper-based filing requirements and coordinating State EAS Plan information in this manner, administering the EAS at the state level will be more clear and consistent. We hope to release that item soon.”

During questioning, Sen. Schatz asked Ms. McGinnis when the FCC’s report on the false alert would be released. “In the near future,” she said, adding that the Commission “wanted to be able to fold today’s hearing” into the report. “So it’s almost done?” Sen. Schatz asked. Ms. McGinnis said yes.

Antwane Johnson, director- continuity communications at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s, said the false Hawaii missile alert “brought to light gaps in existing alerting plans, protocols, and procedures, including those for responding to an erroneous public alert. These gaps exist at multiple levels. Standard operating procedures for the release of alerts need to include additional review steps to ensure the accuracy of a public alert. Additionally, all plans, protocols, and procedures need to include clear guidance and steps for rectifying an erroneous alert if one is sent.”

Mr. Johnson added that “FEMA continues to assist state and local agencies with their specific training requirements and has assisted multiple state and local agencies with IPAWS [Integrated Public Alert and Warning System]-specific training, testing, and exercise requirements during 115 separate engagements. Two of those trainings were with HI-EMA. FEMA is taking steps to review and improve public alert and warning guidance, planning, training, practice, and exercises, and incorporate them across FEMA programs and into the National Incident Management System.

“To help share the lessons learned from the Hawaii missile alert and other recent events (including the use of IPAWS during the 2017 hurricane season and recent California wildfires), FEMA is highlighting best practices to help guide alerting authorities as they review and update their policies and procedures,” Mr. Johnson said. “To facilitate dissemination within the emergency management community, FEMA will launch an online collaborative forum in the spring of 2018 to enable alerting authorities and software developers to share best practices, experiences, operating procedures, and lessons learned.” He said during questioning that the forum will be launched on Monday.

He added that “FEMA has also issued recommendations to Alert Origination Software Providers (AOSP) that go beyond recommendations provided to AOSPs in 2015. In particular, FEMA recommends that vendors providing alert origination software ensure critical capabilities be included in their products to make alert and warning more effective and include steps to mitigate alerting errors.”

Mr. Johnson also noted that an IPAWS subcommittee that FEMA established under its National Advisory Council (NAC) pursuant to the IPAWS Modernization Act of 2015 is scheduled to deliver modernization recommendations to the NAC this fall.

During questioning, Mr. Johnson said FEMA plans to release a “fairly comprehensive” after-action report this spring. He said it will include best practices and steps FEMA has taken since the false alert.

Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, adjutant general of the Hawaiian Department of Defense and director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said in his prepared testimony that he did not want to focus on the actual false missile alert, “as that has been covered extensively via an internal investigation, media coverage, media releases, and testimony at a State Joint Legislative Committee hearing on January 19, 2018. I would like to focus my testimony on the topics of what we have done, what are we doing in the short term and long term to improve our emergency management systems, and how we are regaining the trust of the people of Hawaii.”

But Gen. Logan said that Hawaii residents and visitors “suffered unnecessary fear resulting from human error, exacerbated by a series of HIEMA leadership failures. These failures were in the domains of decision-making and communications evident by the time it took to correct the false alert message error and provide that information to the majority of the public. While inexcusable, the false alert revealed systemic issues and provides opportunities to undertake corrective actions thereby generating enduring solutions.”

Gen. Logan described a number of actions that have been taken since the false alert, including (1) updating a Ballistic Missile Alert Checklist to provide “greater clarity and standardization for the members of the SWP [state warning point]”; (2) upgrading the software used to send alerts “so that there are color differences between test and real world alert icons to click on” and seeking two-factor authentication “for very specific alerts, such as a missile alert”; (3) preparing an HI-EMA action plan, realigning the agency’s organizational chart, and improving processes to monitor the performance of workers and track their training; (4) establishing a mass notification system between HI-EMA and broadcasters; and (5) working with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to deploy a cell on wheels (COW) to improve wireless coverage at the SWP in the Diamond Head crater.

Gen. Logan also noted that retired Navy Capt. Thomas Travis has been named HI-EMA’s administrator, the No. 2 official at the agency. He replaces Vern Miyagi, who quit it the wake of the false missile alert.

During questioning, Gen. Logan suggested that if top leadership had been on hand when the false alert was sent, a corrected alert would have been sent more quickly.

Sen. Schatz said that HI-EMA has “a broken organizational culture.”

Rear Adm. Patrick Piercey, director-operations for the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), also testified. Written testimony was submitted on behalf of Harry Harris Jr., commander of USPACOM.

“While it is unfortunate that the State of Hawaii erred in broadcasting a ballistic missile threat notification on Saturday, 13 January 2018, the event also provided a valuable learning opportunity,” Adm. Harris said in his testimony. “Other states can look to the proactive leadership and engaged approach the State of Hawaii has demonstrated to prepare for the new normal – specifically, living under threat of a North Korean missile attack. Perhaps more importantly, this event provides an opportunity to collectively assess and refine our internal notification/coordination processes in civil defense scenarios to ensure command and component preparedness.”

“USPACOM learned from this experience as well,” the admiral added. “For example, we discovered that the USPACOM JOC [Joint Operations Center], as configured at the time of the event, was unable to receive unclassified Short Message Service texts and, as such, did not directly receive the erroneous missile warning or the following cancellation messages on 13 January. USPACOM also identified an inefficiency in the reporting process which, in addition to the notification requirements maintained by the USPACOM JOC, required a separate unclassified phone call to HI-EMA designed to provide validation to the notification report HI-EMA receives from FEMA. Additionally, the event highlighted the importance of maintaining an independent and dedicated unclassified line into the JOC for senior USPACOM leaders to communicate in the event of an emergency, regardless of call volume.”

He detailed steps that USPACOM has been taken to improve communications.

Adm. Harris also noted, as has been reported before, that Gen. Logan contacted USPACOM three minutes after the missile alert was transmitted to confirm that there was not an actual missile threat. It took 35 additional minutes for HI-EMA to send out the corrected alert, although notifications went out earlier than that via social media and authorities contacted the news media to tell them it was a false alert.

Adm. Piercey was pressed by the lawmakers for why the Defense Department shouldn’t be charged with transmitting ballistic missile alerts rather than states and localities. They said it makes sense since news of missile strikes originate with the military.

“Why do we need these extra layers?” asked Rep. Gabbard. “Why not cut out the extra layers?”

Adm. Piercey suggested that the process works now.

“We now have a convoluted process” that is “a failure,” Sen. Schatz said.

“Is there a problem with you folks being able to press that alert button from your end?” asked Sen. Hirono.

Adm. Piercey replied that such a framework is “not technically supported” but that it could be.

The admiral also said that as a result of the false alert, USPACOM triggered alarms at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam without following proper protocol to validate the alert. “Proper notification would go through military channels,” he said.

Chris Leonard, president and legislative chair of the Hawaii Association of Broadcasters, expressed frustration by the false alert and the time it took authorities to send a corrected alert.

“We have spent many years training the public about where to tune-in during times of emergency. On January 13th, broadcasters fulfilled their duty and successfully transmitted the EAS message as intended. Unfortunately, broadcasters did not receive official corrective information from emergency managers in a timely manner. As a result, many of the state’s 1.4 million people were scared and confused for approximately 38 minutes with little information available to them. Broadcasters were left scrambling to try to figure out what was happening and to inform the public,” Mr. Leonard said.

“The EAS technology worked to issue the first warning, however additional procedures were not in place to properly authenticate the warning nor to address the issuance of a false alert. The public deserves better,” he added. “Although mistakes happen, proper procedures and implementation help prevent them and there should be plans on how to address them when they happen. We must update and improve our state EAS plan to fix many of the issues that we faced here in Hawaii on January 13th. While the false missile warning happened in Hawaii, it presents an issue with national implications. We may face different disasters in different parts of the country, however the common thread is that emergency managers and broadcasters have a duty to inform the public in times of emergencies. Broadcasters are committed to work with all stakeholders to evaluate and greatly improve our public safety communications here in Hawaii and across the nation.”

Mr. Leonard noted that work to update Hawaii’s EAS plan began after the false alert. —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com, and Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

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