clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The U.S. Congress will probe how Hawaii sent out an erroneous alert about an incoming missile

Look for a hearing before a key House committee in the coming weeks.

House Committees Begin Work On Trump's American Health Care Act Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Congressional lawmakers plan to probe how Hawaii officials sent an erroneous emergency alert to its citizens’ smartphones warning of an incoming ballistic missile — and what the United States government can do to prevent another, similar mishap.

The scrutiny will come in the form of a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which announced Tuesday that it would convene a session “in the coming weeks” to question the Federal Communications Commission on a host of issues — including an incident that left countless people in Hawaii fearful for their lives.

“A reliable and strong communications service can save lives during a disaster, but the public needs to be able to trust that the emergency alert they receive is legitimate,” said Republican Reps. Greg Walden and Marsha Blackburn and Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle in a joint statement.

“We need to make sure that a mistake like what happened in Hawaii never happens again,” the lawmakers said. “The upcoming hearing will be an important opportunity to hear from [FCC] commissioners as they continue to investigate the incident.”

Hawaii officials initially set out this weekend to test their state’s emergency preparedness, as fears about the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and North Korea intensify. Instead, they ended up sending out false alerts about an incoming missile to residents’ smartphones — and sounded alarms on locals TVs — that explicitly said it was “not a drill.”

The message prompted widespread panic, before federal lawmakers acknowledged — at first, through Twitter — that it had been sent by mistake. Still, it took the state’s government more than a half hour to send another, updated smartphone alert with correct information. The entire fiasco drew sharp rebukes from policymakers like Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, who later called for “accountability.”

At the FCC, meanwhile, Chairman Ajit Pai immediately announced an investigation. “Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert,” Pai said in a statement Sunday.

“Federal, state, and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them,” Pai continued. “We also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”

The inquiry comes at a time when the agency already had planned to update the country’s wireless emergency alert system. The FCC does not send those loud updates, but it does write the technical rules for them — and regulators have sought to ensure that first responders can send more narrowly tailored, multimedia-friendly updates in times of crisis.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.