Hawaii Sent Out A False Missile Alert. Here's How Other States Avoid The Same Mistake.
Protocols changed, rules were enacted. Among other things, Hawaii will require a second person to sign off on any alert telling people that a ballistic missile has been launched at them.
In other states, though, such systems already were in place. Hawaii’s mistake on Jan. 13, which came amid escalating tensions with North Korea and fears about a nuclear attack, has shined a bright spotlight on the different ways such alerts are handled on a state level. Officials with several states say that their procedures are in place to keep them from sending out false alarms that could strike mortal fear into the communities they serve.
“It’s extremely unlikely that we could make that mistake,” Kelly Huston, deputy director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said in a telephone interview.
In the country’s most-populous state, at least three people are involved in crafting alerts before they can be sent out across California, Huston said. And even then, a higher-up has to approve an alert before it is dispatched from the California State Warning Center, which serves as a hub for emergency communications.
“The final issuance of the alert, clicking the final button to issue an alert, has to be signed off on by an executive of the agency,” Huston said. “Sending an alert from the State Warning Center out to Californians is not a single-person process.”
After Hawaii’s false alarm — which cost the head of the state’s Emergency Management Agency his job — other states sought to remind their residents not to treat alerts as false alarms.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said that for alerts in her state, multiple members of a team with the state’s Department of Emergency Management would discuss whether an alert is needed and agree on the message to send out.
“We take this responsibility very seriously, and have built in precautions to ensure an accidental alert cannot happen,” Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said in a statement shortly after Hawaii’s alert.
Wireless emergency alerts are generally sent out by state and local officials, though there are circumstances under which states or the federal government send some of their own. (Under the Wireless Emergency Alerts system launched in 2012, people can block all alerts but those sent by the president.)
In Washington state, any alert about a possible missile attack would “undergo layers of scrutiny before it was sent,” Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington State Military Department, said in an email.
Washington has just two pre-written alert messages, Shagren said. One deals with tsunamis and the other is related to volcanic activity. At least two people have to approve the messages before they are sent out, she said.
A recent episode highlights what warrants a statewide alert and what does not. After a strong earthquake near Alaska last week, tsunami watches and warnings were issued along the western coastline of the United States and Canada.
But while some local jurisdictions in Washington sent text message alerts, a statewide message was not sent because parts of the state were under a tsunami watch, not a tsunami warning, Shagren said. Had a tsunami warning been issued — meaning a tsunami almost certainly was going to hit the coastline — “the state would have sent messages and sounded the sirens,” she said.
After that quake, the National Tsunami Warning Center sent out warnings that caused evacuations in many areas, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Alaska’s “system has several safeguards in place to ensure false messages” are not released, Zidek wrote in an email.
Hawaii officials have said that the mistaken alert sent Jan. 13 was due to an employee with a troubled work history who said he mistook a drill for an actual missile attack. Zidek said that Alaska has “experienced people that are well trained,” though he acknowledged that “completely eliminating human error is difficult.”
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management does not typically send out alerts to the public, though it has the ability to send them, said spokeswoman Paula Fasano Negele. Instead, most are pushed out from national entities such as the National Weather Service or local offices.
In California, Huston said, nearly all alerts are dispatched on a local level.
“The only time the state of California gets involved in the alerting process is if it’s an alert that needs to go to multiple counties,” he said. “If there’s a threat to the entire state, [such as] an attack threat from a foreign country, we have a protocol where we’d receive the information, the official notice that there is something coming, from the federal government.”
If that happened, state officials would tell all 58 of California’s counties and then work on crafting a specific alert.
“For us in California, it’s pretty clear that us issuing an alert is a significant moment and it is not something that we take lightly,” Huston said. “It isn’t a routine process. It would have to be a significant threat to many parts of the state and we’ve got to be specific and careful about the information that we send out.”
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