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FCC Wants To Ensure Only Those Affected By Natural Disasters Get Emergency Messages


Today the head of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency resigned, and the worker who sent out that false missile alert earlier this month was fired. This after an FCC report said the worker who sent that alert actually thought the state was under attack because the worker misheard a recorded message during a training drill. That miscommunication led to a lot of fear and confusion in Hawaii. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It all started with a phone call. The FCC says on the morning of January 13, the midnight shift supervisor at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called the day shift warning officers pretending to be U.S. Pacific Command. As part of the routine training protocol, the shift supervisor played a tape recording with a message that repeated the word exercise three times along with the words, this is not a drill. The recording ended by repeating the word exercise again three times. Somehow, FCC attorney James Wiley says, the duty warning officer misheard the recording.


JAMES WILEY: The day shift warning officer heard this is not a drill but did not hear exercise, exercise, exercise. According to the written statement, the day shift warning officer therefore believed that the missile threat was real. At 8:07 a.m., this officer responded by transmitting a live incoming ballistic missile alert to the state of Hawaii.

NAYLOR: The FCC report did not identify the warning officer, and state officials today wouldn't name him or her until the worker's appeals process is complete. There were other errors. The day shift supervisor was not present, and it took officials 38 minutes to retract the alert in part because the state's governor, David Ige, says he forgot his twitter password. FCC Commissioner Mike O'Reilly...

MIKE O'REILLY: It is astounding that no one was hurt in this instance. This could've been a cataclysmic catastrophe.

NAYLOR: The FCC report also says the state of Hawaii appears to have been conducting an atypical number of no-notice drills, heightening the possibility for error. And the recording used on January 13 deviated from other exercises by using the wording, this is not a drill. Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the only things that struck Hawaii that day were panic and outrage. He says the FCC's preliminary investigation has uncovered two troubling issues.

AJIT PAI: The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency didn't have reasonable safeguards in place to prevent human error from resulting in the transmission of a false alert. And number two, Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency didn't have a plan for what to do if a false alert was transmitted.

NAYLOR: Pai says those states and localities that send out alerts need to learn from Hawaii's mistakes. The FCC took another action today aimed at improving alerts set out during natural disasters. The problem was highlighted by difficulties officials had sending out text alerts during recent wildfires in California and during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said officials couldn't send the alerts to the right people.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: In California and Texas, for instance, emergency services were unable to transmit these messages because they were unable to target them accurately enough to ensure that they would help those in danger and not cause panic beyond the broader area of concern.

NAYLOR: Under the new rules, alerts will be geo-targeted so only people in the affected areas will receive them, and they'll also be available in Spanish. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.