Lawmakers Say False Emergency Alerts Put American Lives at Risk

Mishaps undermine public confidence in emergency warning system

Hawaii emergency alert
Getty Images
February 7, 2018

Several lawmakers on Tuesday warned that emergency alerts mistakenly dispatched to cellphones across the United States put American lives at risk, just hours after a false tsunami warning was delivered to some mobile users on the East Coast.

The National Weather Service blamed an unnamed private company for erroneously sending a "test message" as an official tsunami warning to mobile devices around 8:30 on Tuesday morning. The botched trial comes less than a month after Hawaii residents received a false emergency alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack on Jan. 13.

House members said these mishaps undermine public confidence in the emergency warning system and could cause residents to disregard the messages in a crisis situation.

"We saw an example of this just this morning when an alert that was supposed to be just a test warned multiple locations on the East Coast that a tsunami was on its way," Rep. Dan Donovan, a New York Republican who chairs the House Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee, said at a congressional hearing.

"Considering the current threat environment to the United States, evidenced by many events of the past few months, including two terrorist attacks in New York City … the accuracy and efficiency of wireless emergency alerts is critical," he continued.

The Federal Communication Commission has been investigating what went wrong when a Hawaii emergency management services employee last month sent an erroneous ballistic missile alarm to more than one million people. It took emergency officials about 38 minutes to correct the false incoming ballistic missile message, triggering widespread panic across the island chain.

In a preliminary report released last week, the FCC said the employee mistakenly believed the state was under imminent attack. Federal officials also faulted Hawaii's emergency management agency for lacking safeguards to prevent the false alert and to correct it in a timely manner.

"For the public alerts and the warnings to be effective, the public has to be able to trust them," said Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D., N.J.). "False alerting can be very dangerous as it can lead to alert apathy, confusion, and unnecessary panic."

Video that surfaced after the incident showed Hawaii residents rushing to shelter, crowding roads, and crawling under tables. One clip showed a group of parents dropping their children into a storm drain as a makeshift bomb shelter.

"This had to be a hair-raising, on-fire incident," said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D., Texas). "In fact, it could have generated enormous loss of life by people's own panic."

Antwane Johnson, who heads the emergency public alerts and warnings program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called the mistake a "tragic event." He testified before the panel that FEMA is reviewing its training programs to ensure the employees who operate emergency alert systems are proficient.

Published under: FEMA