FCC: Human Error, Lack of Safeguards Led to Hawaii's False Alarm

The FCC Homeland Security Bureau's preliminary investigation of Hawaii's accidental release of a ballistic missile alert found that the state did not have a plan for what to do if a false alarm was issued, or a plan to correct a false alarm.

The FCC bureau, in a report at the commission's Jan. 30 public meeting, said the alert was issued due to a miscommunication between the night shift and day shift of Hawaii's emergency management agency, exacerbated by a failure to quickly communicate that the alert was sent in error. A warning official said he mistook a drill for the real thing, though the FCC said it was unclear whether that was the case or whether it was inadvertently sent despite knowing it was a drill.

Related: FCC Investigating Missile False Alarm

While human error was the cause, the bureau also found that the software used to send the alert did not differentiate between a test and a live alarm, and allowed both to be triggered with the same credentials, with pre-prepared templates making it easy to launch the alert without having to sufficiently focus on the content.

FCC chair Ajit Pai, who said the only thing triggered in Hawaii was panic and outrage, both justified. He said he was most troubled by the state's failure to have proper safeguards to prevent human error from causing such a false alarm and that no plan was in place for dealing with one. He said that should be a lesson to all states to have both.

The commissioners were in agreement that changes were necessary, though commissioner Michael O'Rielly emphasized that communications providers did nothing wrong, pointing out that carriers got the message out, false or not, which was their role, and that the issue was with emergency officials and processes.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel emphasized that time is of the essence, and new and better practices for all stakeholders need to be put in place ASAP. She also invoked the current nuclear angst stemming from the North Korea threat and war of words between North Korea and the U.S., saying that residents of Hawaii, “like all of us, are aware of new vulnerabilities in the Pacific.”

In addition to the Hawaii report, the FCC meeting included a vote on a related issue: The commissioners unanimously approved an item to better geo-target wireless emergency alerts as part of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. "Recent events in California and Hawaii remind us of the urgency of improving WEA," commissioner Brendan Carr said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.