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FCC commissioner calls for more emergency alert oversight

Jessica Rosenworcel says the FCC should ensure states' annual emergency alert plans are up-to-date to avoid what happened in Hawaii in January.

Eugene Tanner / AFP/Getty Images

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wants the agency to be more involved in ensuring the false alert mistakenly sent in January warning that a ballistic missile was about to hit the islands doesn't happen again.

At a field hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet in Honolulu Thursday, Rosenworcel said the agency could take a number of steps, including making states more accountable when they file their annual confirmation of Emergency Alert Systems. She said that Hawaii's plan was over a decade old.

"We should make this process a meaningful one by making sure every plan is up to date," she said. She added that the FCC could use these annual filings to make sure local, state and federal agencies are adhering to best practices, including security protocols.

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FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at her Senate confirmation in July 2017.

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Rosenworcel's testimony came three months after a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee mistakenly sent an alert to cellphones and broadcast stations across the state during an exercise. It took the agency more than 30 minutes to send a follow-up message notifying the public the alert was a mistake.

Officials later disclosed that the employee thought the threat was real and that an attack was imminent. The employee has since been fired. Within hours of the alert, the agency changed its practices and started requiring that two people are necessary to send an alert. It also made it easier to cancel alerts.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai quickly opened an investigation into what happened following the incident. Pai has called the false alert "absolutely unacceptable" and added that it was preventable. But an official for the agency testified at an earlier hearing that there is little the agency can do since it has little authority to enforce how states set up their emergency alert systems. Rosenworcel said that should change.

"We need to do better," she said. "This is true in Hawaii and across the country."

A hearing of the full committee was held in Washington, DC in January following the incident. Hawaii's Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, at that time called for the field hearing in Hawaii to explore options on how to improve the system to ensure public safety.

Schatz has already introduced legislation, which he says could prevent something like this from happening in the future. The Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act of 2018 proposed in February prohibits state and local governments from notifying citizens about a ballistic missile threat, instead leaving the task to federal officials.

"The federal government is in a position to know for sure whether a missile is on its way," Schatz said. "When they make that determination, there should not be a middleman."

Rosenworcel said she supports Schatz's legislation.

"We need to address failures at the alert origination point," she said, which includes establishing, "clear lines of responsibility when it comes to missile threats."

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