Hawaii Alert Highlights Limits of Emergency Alert System, Associations Say

The recent incident in Hawaii, in which a test message was accidentally sent to millions of people, comes at a time when emergency groups are calling for upgrades to the FCC’s wireless system—upgrades the commission is supportive of.

Last week’s shock alert in Hawaii—warning of an imminent missile strike that was about to hit the island—came at an interesting time for both the country and our discussion of how the emergency system works.

The warning, which put millions of Hawaiians in a panic mode before it was made clear that it was an accident, created conversations about Hawaii’s susceptibility to an attack, the weaknesses of the current emergency system, and even the value of user interface design.

Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, was focused on the first issue, writing in a tweet: “Today’s false alarm in Hawaii a reminder of the big risks we continue to run by relying on nuclear deterrence/prompt launch nuclear posture. And while deterring/containing North Korea is far preferable to preventive war, it’s not risk free. And it could fail.”

The American arm of the International Association of Emergency Managers, which represents operators of emergency infrastructure, noted that the event, while raising concerns for the public, might have some broader benefits for the public at large.

“IAEM-USA believes this incident can be a learning exercise for other local emergency management agencies across the United States,” the association said in a statement [PDF]. “Learning from the mistake will provide better experiences in future emergency alerts.”

And the issue drew discussions of design, or lack thereof. The state’s governor’s office released a screenshot that appeared to show a very limited design approach, though it later said the image it shared with Honolulu Civic Beat was inaccurate.

Nonetheless, the false alarm happened at a time when the Federal Communications Commission is already talking about the system’s design, which is said to be outdated and often too broad—and that leads the public to take the alerts that matter less seriously. The commission’s chair, Ajit Pai, recently proposed changes to the system [PDF].

“Emergency officials across America have told the FCC how important it is to better pinpoint these alerts to impacted communities,” Pai said previously of the emergency system. “This would encourage more local officials to use these alerts during emergencies as well as lead Americans to take more seriously the alerts they receive on their mobile devices.”

IAEM-USA President Nick Crossley told Emergency Management that the FCC’s proposal, which would allow for narrow device-based geo-targeting, was a necessary upgrade to the system, especially as the lack of geo-targeting meant that alerts were not used in some recent emergencies because they were too broad.

“We will become more dependent on those mobile emergency alerts as we go into the future and try to use every tool possible,” Crossley told the website.

The association joined the National Emergency Number Association, the National Emergency Management Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, and Big City Emergency Managers in sending a letter to the commission [PDF] calling for upgrades to the platform, including the ability to respond to alerts, the addition of multimedia, and the addition of multilingual messaging.

“The emergency management and public safety community and those we protect have been waiting too long for WEA improvements,” the letter stated.

In regard to the current incident, the FCC has said it is investigating why Hawaii “did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert.”

(Associations Now photo illustration)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!