Following a series of embarrassing mishaps, the Senate has decided that local authorities can’t be trusted with the keys to the emergency alert system. On Tuesday, Senators unanimously agreed that federal oversight of the system would help prevent scaring the hell out of citizens with erroneous “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND” warnings.
In January, the phones of residents in Hawaii lit up with an emergency alert warning of an incoming missile that explicitly clarified “this is not a drill.” It wasn’t a drill; it was a major screw up at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Hawaii’s senator Brian Schatz quickly introduced the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) bill which transfers the authority to send a missile alert to the Department of Defense. Now that it’s passed the Senate, it’ll have to clear the House, but considering how little gets done in Congress, this seems like an easy win.
Reasons given by authorities for the botched alert in Hawaii shifted a few times and included miscommunication about a surprise drill as well as an apparently poorly designed interface for triggering the system. It just so happened that at the time, Americans were a little on edge about nuclear missiles as tensions with North Korea were particularly fraught. Hawaiians panicked and presumably began preparing for the end until 38 minutes later, when they were informed it was a false alarm.
If ALERT makes it through the legislative process, the DOD will be the sole agency in charge of sending out alerts related to incoming missiles, and as Schatz said when he introduced the bill, “The people who know first should be the people who tell the rest of us.” In Hawaii’s case, the DOD had to go through local authorities in order to tell the public that they were not going to die in a blaze of hellfire.
The bill would not totally eliminate state participation in the emergency alert system, but it would establish new minimum requirements that all states will have to meet before they can put their finger on the button. So, local authorities may not be able to accidentally tell you there’s an incoming nuke, but they still might send out the occasional zombie alert.