Safeguards help prevent false emergency alerts in NC, but some mistakes are inevitable

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Wireless Emergency Alerts allow public safety officials to send warnings directly to cell phones in case of a potentially life-threatening incident. Recently, though, erroneous alerts have gone out with long delays in correcting the messages.

It isn’t a new concept. False alarms aren’t new, either.

On Feb. 20, 1971, at 9:33 a.m. on a Saturday, wire service teletypes across the United States spit out an urgent message: the president has ordered all normal broadcasting to cease because the country was under attack.

For more than 40 minutes, the country thought nuclear missile attacks were imminent as efforts were made to get the message corrected.

A recall message was finally sent and the all-clear was given. An investigation found that a technician in Cheyanne Mountain inserted the wrong tape into a machine. Instead of sending the test message, it sent a real one.

The federal government revamped the system and procedures. It was believed such slip-ups couldn’t happen again, but one did occur — once again on a Saturday morning — on Jan. 13, 2018.

“A missile may impact at any moment. This is not a drill,” the alert read.

People were frightened into thinking a missile impact was imminent. Children were placed in manholes for protection. Others ran in fear. The panic lasted for more than 30 minutes before an official all-clear was given.

An investigation into this mishap revealed an employee in the emergency communications center was supposed to send out a drill message but misunderstood and sent out the message as a real alert.

Officials blamed communication issues.

“It was confusing on who was in charge, who was giving out the orders, who was to follow up and do the procedures,” said Brig. Gen. RET Bruce Oliveira. He was the internal investigating officer.

In January, a mistaken wireless alert said there was a problem at a Canadian nuclear plant. And, once again, the alert was eventually rescinded, but not before causing plenty of anxiety.

North Carolina Emergency Management’s statewide interoperability coordinator Greg Hauser said few state agencies are authorized to send a Wireless Emergency Alert message.

The alerts originate from a command center in Raleigh. There are several layers of safeguards before an emergency message is sent. One is that two people are working there at all times and they have to coordinate with each other before any message is sent out.

Still, mistakes can happen.

On Jan. 18, 2018, the sirens surrounding the Harris Nuclear Plant, signaling an emergency situation. Wake County later sent an email explaining that it was a “false alarm.”

The erroneous warning never made it to phones as a push alert because the personnel in the WEA command center were never notified because there was no problem at the plant.

Widespread panic was averted.

There is a bank of special telephones set off to one side in the state command center. They are direct contact lines with the nuclear power stations. A message received by those phones would be the first indication something was wrong at a nuclear plant.

A warning about a nuclear plant incident has to pass through a lot of hands before it’s issued.

“If some type of message is created by the locals, the power plant, and here — they’re all involved in that process,” Hauser said.

The state has also dissected what went wrong in Hawaii and Canada with their counterparts at those agencies.

“I’ve spoken many times to my counterpart in Hawaii,” Hauser said. “They learned a lot from that error. They’re only better for it, and the cool thing is: we also got to learn.”

There was a long time between the false warning and correction message in many of those cases. The state thinks it could quickly rectify a mistake should one happen.

“It would only take however long it takes to type out a message,” Hauser said.

The state is required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do internal tests monthly. All messages must include a phrase like “this is only a test” so that if an errant message does go public, people know it’s not referring to an actual event.

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