When a false missile alert was sent to residents in Hawaii in January, it caused a massive panic. In the immediate aftermath, the message — which warned of an incoming missile attack — drove a news cycle, led to serious criticism of state officials, and raised questions about safeguards in place to prevent similar mishaps in the future. As the one-year anniversary of the alert approaches, there have been some reforms to the system, but others are still only being handled now.
Soon after the incident, investigations faulted human error and poor software design for the incident, and state emergency officials resigned in the wake of the scandal. The state pledged to overhaul its system, and since then, there have been some pushes for change at the federal level as well.
In July, the FCC, which produced an investigation into the Hawaii incident, passed new testing procedures for alerts. The procedures, the agency said, would give emergency personnel more leeway to follow the same processes in tests as they do in actual emergencies. The agency also required new configurations in equipment to pre-emptively stop false alarms, and created reporting paths for when a false alert is sent.
In November, the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog also released a report on FEMA’s role in the emergency alert system. The report found that, while FEMA had set up “best practices” for the system, the agency didn’t require that software providers actually train authorities on their system. FEMA said it would follow recommendations in the report to fix that gap.
A change in federal law has so far been more elusive. This week, before the government shutdown crisis, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would overhaul the emergency alert system. While the fate of the legislation’s reforms is now uncertain, the bill, pressed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and two Republican colleagues, would introduce several changes to the alerts system.
Among them, the bill would end the ability to opt out of alerts, and require that alerts be repeated. It would also explore ways to further the internet alert system, including finding ways to interrupt streaming services, like Netflix.
“When a missile alert went out across Hawaii in January, some people never got the message on their phones, while others missed it on their TVs and radios,” Schatz said in a statement. “Even though it was a false alarm, the missile alert highlighted real ways we can improve the way people receive emergency alerts.”