False Alarms

The unintentional transmission of a false alarm of an impending missile attack in Hawaii drew attention across the United States, but it has hardly been the only incident of a warning of an impending disaster being accidentally issued. Although much lower profile than the Hawaii event, Connecticut also recently received a false warning of an impending tsunami. While both events were outliers, the damage that they posed to trust in warning systems has led to calls for reforming access to the ability to issue alerts, as well as increased training for those able to issue alerts -- currently, over a thousand state, local, and federal government agencies have the ability to issue various emergency warnings through federally managed communications networks.

Seeking to reduce these events, the Senate has introduced legislation to establish minimum standards for participation of state and local agencies in the national alert system, and recommending steps to minimize the likeliness of false alarms. The FCC has also taken actions to reduce opportunities for false alerts, ordering wireless providers to improve their geographic targeting of emergency alerts, to contact only those within the affected area and limit overreach into surrounding regions. Observes Dan Gonzalez, a scientist at RAND Corp., to Insurance Journal, "the emergency alerting system is really a whole collection of systems, and there are various places where it can break down. With so many organizations involved, it's difficult to make it foolproof."