Missile Alert Report Urges FEMA to Make Vendors Change Software

The report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Inspector General urges FEMA to require that software used by local authorities to access and operate the emergency alert system include features such as the ability to preview or cancel alerts.

by Kevin Dayton, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / November 27, 2018
A staffer watches for disaster alerts in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency command center in Honolulu, United States, on Nov. 30, 2017. ==Kyodo Kyodo

(TNS) — A new federal review of the frightening Jan. 13 false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency impose new requirements on computer software vendors to help states and local jurisdictions operate FEMA’s emergency alert system.

The report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Inspector General urges FEMA to require that software used by local authorities to access and operate the emergency alert system include features such as the ability to preview or cancel alerts.

The report also recommends that FEMA require that software vendors provide training to state and local emergency management agencies on how to properly use the system, according to the report.

“Until FEMA addresses these issues, the potential exists that alerting authorities will continue to experience problems during the alerting process,” according to the report.

FEMA estimates that both recommendations will be implemented by Oct. 31, according to the report.

Richard Rapoza, public information officer for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said HI-EMA now has a “false alarm function” that was installed after the Jan. 13 alert that allows it to cancel messages that were sent out in error. HI-EMA also has continuing training on how to use the warning system.

“Over the past year we’ve examined our own practices, and we’ve found some areas where we’ve made some improvements, so we’re with them 100 percent,” Rapoza said.

FEMA maintains the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) emergency messaging system that was activated during the false missile alert in Hawaii. However, state and local authorities must purchase commercially available emergency alert software to generate messages that pass through IPAWS for delivery to the public, according to the report.

More than 1,000 state and local authorities use the IPAWS system, which allows messages to be issued to the public via radio and television broadcasts, cellphone messages and internet applications. Government entities issue thousands of alerts each year, with the vast majority of the warnings used to notify the public of dangerous weather conditions.

The now-famous Hawaii false alarm occurred when HI-EMA sent a text alert Jan. 13 to most cellphones in the state warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack and advising that “This is not a drill.” HI-EMA did not send out an official announcement retracting the false alarm for 38 minutes, and many residents and tourists panicked.

According to the inspector general’s report, HI-EMA officials were uncertain how to issue a false-alarm notification to the public. The Hawaii agency contacted FEMA twice for assistance after issuing the false alarm even though HI-EMA was authorized to issue the false-alarm notification without FEMA’s approval, according to the report.

The incident prompted multiple investigations, including one requested by Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono that led to the new report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. Hirono released a statement Monday saying her office requested that the Homeland Security report be released publicly.

Hirono’s statement noted that the concerns raised in the new report did not actually cause the false missile alert in Hawaii. That alert was sent out by a Hawaii Emergency Management employee who has said he mistook a HI-EMA alert drill for an actual missile attack.

“I thank the DHS Inspector General for providing much needed answers on FEMA’s role in the false missile alert sent to Hawaii residents and the overall management of the alert system it oversees,” Hirono said in her statement. “The inadequate safeguards found in the report are unacceptable and I will closely monitor FEMA’s progress in implementing the Inspector General’s recommendations to ensure such an incident never happens again in Hawaii, or in any other state that utilizes an emergency alert system.”

Hirono is also a co-sponsor of a measure introduced by Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz that would give the federal government the primary responsibility of alerting the public of a missile threat.

That bill, also known as the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats, or ALERT, Act, would require FEMA to recommend best practices to local officials on initiating, modifying and canceling alerts. The ALERT Act unanimously passed the Senate on June 28 and is pending action in the U.S. House.


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