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16 minutes

On January 13, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert went out all over Hawaii. The message caused 38 minutes of panic and confusion until corrections were sent to residents' cell phones, televisions and radios through Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and the Emergency Alert System (EAS). When went wrong in Hawaii, and what did the FCC find in its investigation and report? While what happened in Hawaii may be an extreme example, Americans have become familiar with emergency alerts over the years—from flash flood and tornado warnings to AMBER Alerts when children go missing. What are some of the successes of the system, and what are some of the challenges? What is the FCC doing to improve WEAs, particularly when it comes to geotargeting and providing more information through the alerts? What should listeners expect when FEMA conducts a nationwide test on October 3, 2018? (Note: that test was originally scheduled for September 20). And finally, what do the latest innovations on the horizon mean for public safety? Evan discusses all that and more with Lisa Fowlkes, Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. (Disclaimer)


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Hey listeners before we begin a quick note. The FEMA nationwide test of the emergency alert system and wireless emergency alert system that we discussed in this episode was originally planned for September 20th, that's now been moved to October 3rd.

Welcome to More than 7 Dirty Words, the official FCC Podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber, your host.

On January 13th, 2018, at 8:07 a.m. local time in Hawaii a ballistic missile defense drill wet awry. And the following message went out all over Hawaii. BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

This false alert caused 38 minutes of panic and it took about 13 minutes for the first correction to appear on Social Media and 38 minutes for a first alert to go out over the Wireless Emergency Alert and Emergency Alert System.

Now, this was obviously a big mistake but what was the FCC's response to the Hawaii incident? And more broadly, given the FCC's role in public safety what should listeners know about wireless emergency alerts and the emergency alert system? And what efforts are underway at the Agency to update these systems?

Well, joining me to discuss all of that and more is Lisa Fowlkes, Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

Lisa, thanks so much for joining the show.

MS. FOWLKES: Thank you for having me.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, to start out I mean what exactly was the FCC's response when this missile alert went out?

MS. FOWLKES: The FCC immediately commenced an investigation which included sending two investigators to Hawaii to talk to the various stakeholders involved. Representatives of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency, service providers such as broadcast stations, equipment vendors who provide alerting initiation equipment to government agencies. We also talked to other government alert initiators in other parts of the country to find out what they were doing in terms of their Standard Operating Procedures how they would handle a false alert and basically to learn what safeguards are out there.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And then specifically to this incident do we know exactly what the mistake was and how such a catastrophic error happened?

MS. FOWLKES: Well, it turns out that Hawaii really did not have good procedures in place to issue an alert and particularly what to do if a false alert was issued. There was also some human error problems. For example, Hawaii under the process that Hawaii had you basically had one person who would issue the alert. There wasn't second person validation of the message before it went out the door.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, if one person makes a mistake there's not that backstop there?


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Almost like in the movies where you have two people that have a key at the same time.

MS. FOWLKES: Right, exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: To protect against their --

MS. FOWLKES: And then what complicated that and what contributed to the 38-minute delay to issue an alert correcting the false alert is that Hawaii Emergency management did not have procedures in place that anticipated what would they do if there was a false alert. How would they correct it, what are the processes for getting it out over the Emergency Alert System or the Wireless Emergency Alerts.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And what really struck me about this was just the words, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

MS. FOWLKES: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Because all of us are so accustomed to fire drills and all sorts of tests and, you know, preparedness and thank God most of the time we're just testing and we're preparing. We're not actually faced with a disaster. But then when you see those words, I mean, in our culture it's just this embedded notion of like, it's for real.

MS. FOWLKES: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And it's hard to imagine, you know, I wasn't there, and if you weren't in Hawaii and you didn't get that alert it's hard to imagine what would go through your head in a situation like that. Pretty powerful stuff. But it might be some comfort to know that there are efforts underway to improve the Wireless Emergency Alert System and you I heard have been working on alerts for what 14 years now--


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- at the FCC. I mean that's pretty remarkable. And this is obviously an extreme example in Hawaii and there was some localized human error there. But the Wireless Emergency Alert System is a lot more than just missile alerts. I mean, people might be familiar with flash flood warnings on a phone. I've been in a coffee shop and everyone's phone goes off at the same time. Ert, ert, ert. And you're like, oh, I guess we're all getting a flood warning. Or maybe before cell phones it was the Emergency Alert System where you were up late at night watching some bizarre infomercial and your screen turned black and you got the alert. So, that might be how people are familiar with the system. And there are always efforts to improve it and modernize it. So, what do we have going on here a the Agency in regards to these systems?

MS. FOWLKES: Well, with respect to Wireless Emergency Alerts and this is the system where consumers can receive emergency alerts over their cell phone as long their wireless carrier is participating in Wireless Emergency Alerts and the consumer has a Wireless Emergency Alerts capable phone and they are in the targeted area.


MS. FOWLKES: And the good thing about the Wireless Emergency Alerts which sets it apart from some of the subscription-based alerting systems that a lot of governments use is that Wireless Emergency Alerts involve sending the alert, involved targeting to a specific area based on cell towers. The cell towers broadcast the alert to a certain targeted area. And if you're in the area that is served by that cell tower then if all the other things that I've mentioned are true you should get the alert.

So, what this means is that a government agency that's issuing an alert will not only touch the people that live in the targeted area but if you're a tourist and you happen to be in that targeted area you may get that alert as well.

Some of the challenges that we've seen since it was launched in April 2012 the biggest one has been geographic targeting. When the Commission initially adopted rules it basically set up geo-targeting so it was county based.

Now, if you have a county that's relatively small, that might not be such a problem but what we were finding is that there are a lot of states that really have these gigantic counties. And if you're trying to target an alert to a county that's that large then you end up sending an alert to people where the situation really doesn't apply to them and it causes confusion.

So, one of the things that the FCC has focused on is trying to have more granular geo-targeting. So, the Commission's current rules say that the carrier must be able to geo-target based on its best approximation of the target area.

The Commission has rules that will take effect next year that will require that the targeted area be no more than one tenth a mile from the target area.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's a lot more precise --


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- and I guess that gets right at the issue of kind of boy who cried wolf problem --


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- which I think has been identified where if you're constantly getting alerts that don't apply to you --


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- you're eventually going to ignore the one that matters.

MS. FOWLKES: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And that's what -- and we want to make sure that when people get these alerts they're paying attention.

MS. FOWLKES: Exactly. Other area of improvement that we've been focused on is providing government agencies the ability to provide more information in the alert.

When the rules were originally adopted it called for a limit of 90 characters which that's a pretty short alert.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It's less than a Tweet?

MS. FOWLKES: Yes. Yes. And so one of the rules that the Commission adopted was to expand that 90 characters to 360 characters and that's another improvement that will become effective next year.

Another improvement is that we will be requiring the carriers, the wireless service providers, to support alerts in Spanish. We've also adopted rules that are in effect now that require the wireless service providers to support alerts with a clickable URL. So, that means if I get an alert and there's a link I should be able to click on it and go to that link.

We're still looking at other improvements such as whether to require support for additional languages other than Spanish and English. Whether to support multi-media based alerts.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That might involve like videos of an area or --


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- photos that could get very specific or to show the danger which might get people a little bit more, you know, get them into gear in terms of responding.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Now, just so I have this right. While the alerts are being sent out over the cell networks and it does involve the companies, they're not the ones who decide to send out an emergency alert, right?

MS. FOWLKES: No. No. Government agencies make that decision. So, one type of alert that can be issued over this system is the Presidential which would be handled by FEMA.

The National Weather Service handles weather alerts. And they actually are responsible for most of the alerts that you see, not just on Wireless Emergency Alerts but on the Broadcast-Based Emergency Alert System.

The system can be used to issue Amber alerts. And, in fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that Wireless Emergency Alerts has been directly responsible for the recovery of over 50 children --

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's remarkable.

MS. FOWLKES: -- since it went operational.

State and local governments can also issue these alerts. For example, some cities have used Wireless Emergency Alerts to issue shelter in place or evacuation alerts.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, that's pretty remarkable, you know. It's easy to focus on the shortcomings but when you hear that over 50 children have been recovered, I mean, that's pretty remarkable and I also see that over 35,000 of these alerts have been sent.

MS. FOWLKES: Well, it's now about 40,000.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, wow. All right. Well, maybe that's 4,000 since I wrote up these notes. So, actually, it's interesting that we're doing this show now. We're recording on September 12th. I'm not sure exactly when you'll be listening to this listener but at least currently there's a plan for a big event on September 20th--


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- in regards to the Emergency Alert System and the Wireless Emergency Alert System. Is this a nationwide test that we're going to experience?

MS. FOWLKES: Yes, this is a nationwide test of both the Broadcast Emergency Alert System and the Cell Phone Wireless Emergency Alerts. This is actually the fourth nationwide test that FEMA has conducted with respect to the broadcast-based EAS. This will be the first nationwide test for Wireless Emergency Alerts. So, on September 20th we may hear a lot of cell phone going off all over the place.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. And just make sure this one actually is a drill.

MS. FOWLKES: It is a test and it will be clear that it is a test.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. And no need to freak out there, listeners. We're just testing here.

So, you know, you mentioned that next year new rules will be taking effect. I mean, what else should the listeners be looking out for, you know, in terms of Wireless Emergency Alerts? I mean, we've seen the devastation with the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Houston. I mean, wide fires in California. It seems like these days on the news there's always something going on. And, you know, if you're listening to this show, you know, what should you be looking out for as we move forward. The day where you see over 300 characters instead of 90 or are there other things that people should be aware of?

MS. FOWLKES: Basically, it is they will see longer messages with the 360. Some people who speak Spanish and not English or Spanish is their primary language you should see more alerts in Spanish. They should also hopefully see more targeted alerting so that the consumer -- if the consumer gets the Wireless Emergency Alert they can feel more comfortable that the alert does apply to them.

One of the goals of our changes to geographic targeting was that the consumer gets more alerts that relate to them and fewer of those that don't.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And then, of course, you know, before cell phones we had the Emergency Alert System which deals with broadcast television, cable television.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Are there any efforts ongoing there or is that working fairly well.

One thing I wanted to note is that, you know, sometimes in disasters depending on which communication infrastructure is impacted those are the ones that might be online if the cell phones go down.

MS. FOWLKES: Exactly.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, is there anything people should be aware of in terms of, you know, they're over the air alerts through radio or over their television or their cable television or satellite television?

MS. FOWLKES: One of the things that we have been working with FEMA and emergency managers on are best practices to assist government agencies that issue these alerts so that they can issue better alerts, they have processes in place to mitigate the possibility of issuing a false alert. So, that's certainly one of the areas that we have been focused on.

Another thing that people should look out for and this applies to the broadcast-based system as well as Wireless Emergency Alerts is that the Commission has adopted rules that establish what's called Blue Alerts. And these alerts would be issued in cases where a law enforcement officer has been killed or is injured or missing. And it's been confirmed that the perpetrator is in the targeted area. And the idea there is not only to say to the people that receive the alert, be careful there's this person there that has already caused harm to a law enforcement officer but also if you see this person here's what you need to do, whether it's take cover or this is how you can get information to law enforcement. So, that's another big change that they should see.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, as we see all these technologies coming down the pike, whether it's, you know, faster Internet, next generation wireless 5G, next generation TV, ATSC3.0, all the shiny new gadgets, you know. They always have implications for our economy. Maybe they're fun to use or new games and new work applications but it's always important to remember that with every technological advance in the communications sphere there is a potential to improve public safety.


MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And I'm glad to be able to interview you about that as we move towards better emergency alerts, whether it's over your cell phone, over the air or over cable or whatever technology we're using.

So, thanks so much for joining me. My guess has been Lisa Fowlkes, Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

Thanks for joining.

MS. FOWLKES: Thanks for having me.

MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, make sure to find this podcast whether you get your podcasts, whether that's in the Itunes Stores, Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, we're available. And if you like what you hear or you don't feel free to write us a review. We're happy to hear feedback and that will help others find the show.