Hoping to eliminate a repeat of January’s false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii that triggered widespread panic, a bipartisan pair of senators introduced a bill on Wednesday to improve America’s emergency alert systems.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. John Thune, South Dakota, would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency within the United States Department of Homeland Security, to share best practices on avoiding and retracting false alerts with state, local and tribal authorities.
The bill would also mandate that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials track false alerts.
In January in Hawaii during a period of increased tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, the state’s Emergency Alert System and Commercial Mobile Alert System issued a false warning of an incoming ballistic missile over TV, radio, and cellphones to more than a million people.
The alert advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded: “This is not a drill.”
State officials needed 37 minutes to correct the error, causing panic, exposing flaws in the system and causing an uproar for reform.
State officials later blamed a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. When the FCC and Hawaii House of Representatives investigated, the state’s emergency management administrator resigned.
Critics say Hawaii’s false alarm not only highlighted weaknesses in state alert systems, which often lack safeguards, but also made clear the need for stricter federal oversight.
In June, the Senate passed parallel legislation to what Mr. Schatz and Mr. Thune introduced on Wednesday. The June bill, sponsored by Mr. Schatz, would place the federal government, rather than state and local officials, in charge of sending missile alerts.
“States are laboratories of democracy,” the Hawaii senator said when discussing that piece of legislation earlier this year. “They should not be the laboratories of missile alerts. The people who know first should be the people who tell the rest of us. This legislation makes clear that the authority to send missile alerts rests with the federal government.”
Wednesday’s proposal also requires missile alerts originating at the federal level to be repeated, in addition to removing the option for citizens to opt out of federal alerts on mobile phones.