United States

False alarms highlight weaknesses in national alert system

Written by Michael Rubinkam

Weather junkie John Grosso knew it was highly unlikely a monster wave was barreling toward the Connecticut coast. Still, when a tsunami warning appeared out of the blue on his phone Tuesday, he felt a twinge of fear. His co-workers, who got the same alert, asked whether they should evacuate.

It turned out to be a false alarm, a computer glitch. The damage? An erosion of trust.

“Now I have to check every single time, God forbid, there’s a tornado warning, a tsunami alert, pick your poison,” said Grosso, 25, a social media manager from Stamford. “I have to look at it and go, ‘Is it a test? Was it sent in error?’ And I could be wasting precious time in case it was real.”

Last month’s bogus ballistic missile warning in Hawaii and, now, this week’s tsunami snafu have highlighted trouble spots and prompted calls for change in the nation’s increasingly complex system for alerting Americans about dangerous weather, active shooters, kidnapped children, plant explosions and other emergencies.

Both incidents have prompted calls for reform, including better training for emergency workers in charge of sending alerts.

More than 1,000 federal, state and local government agencies have the ability to issue emergency alerts through an array of federally managed communications networks. It is a patchwork system that usually works as intended but can wreak havoc when it doesn’t.

In the Senate, legislation introduced this week in response to the false missile alert would establish standards for state and local agencies’ participation in the national alert system, require federal certification of their incident management systems, and recommend steps for avoiding false alarms.

Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered wireless providers to do a better job of targeting emergency alerts to only those in the affected area, with a geographic “overreach” of no more than one-tenth of a mile.

Aside from the false alarms, emergency agencies have been criticized for sending alerts to too many people or too few. In Alaska, for instance, a tsunami warning triggered by an undersea earthquake in January reached residents of Anchorage even though the city wasn’t in danger. In Northern California wine country, where wildfires killed dozens of people in October, some residents complained that authorities failed to send an emergency alert to their phones.

“The emergency alerting system is really a whole collection of systems, and there are various places where it can break down,” said Dan Gonzales, a scientist at RAND Corp. who studies emergency alert systems. “With so many organizations involved, it’s difficult to make it foolproof.”

Read more at AP

About the author

Michael Rubinkam