National Security

Sounding the Alarm — Is the Emergency Alert System Crying Wolf?

In case you did not know, there is a national public warning system that is supposed to warn us of incoming dangers. But what if the very system that is supposed to warn us of dangers is used against us to create danger, panic, and mayhem?

Brief history lesson here: the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), occasionally called the Emergency Broadcasting System and sometimes called the Emergency Action Notification System (EANS), was an emergency warning system used in the United States. It replaced the previous CONELRAD system and was used from 1963 to 1997, at which point it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

The Emergency Alert System is a national public warning system that requires broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers to facilitate the communications capability to the President to address the American public during a national emergency. The system also may be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information targeted to specific areas.

(Credit: Facebook/The Inquisitor Newspaper)

To highlight my point, I want to tell you a story that you have probably heard a version of in one way or another. But it is pertinent to the point I want to make. The story I wish to share is one of the more famous of Aesop’s fables.

Many years ago, a bored shepherd boy decides that the best way to entertain himself is to trick the townspeople. The Boy Who Cried Wolf: A boy has the job of protecting a flock of sheep from wolves. If a wolf comes, he is to ring a bell and cry out “wolf,” so that the men from the village will come with their guns. After a few days with no wolf, the boy is getting bored, so he pretends that a wolf is attacking.

The men come running, and praise the boy even when they find no wolf, believing his story of the wolf having run off.

The boy enjoys the attention, so he repeats the trick. This time he is not praised—the men do not believe that there was a wolf. When a wolf really does attack, and the boy rings his bell and cries “wolf,” the men do not come, thinking that he is playing the trick again. As a result, the wolf devours the sheep. This story was written more than 2,500 years ago in Greek. In a modernized English version, the wolf also eats the boy.

This story became so popular that the Oxford English Dictionary actually published a definition for the term “cry wolf.” In short, to “cry wolf” means to “Call for help when it is not needed, with the effect that one is not believed when one really does need help.”

Why do I mention that story? Because of the sheer amount of false alarms we are receiving via the EAS.

Just last month, the National Tsunami Warning Center issued a routine communication test in Alaska. Unfortunately, no one really knows who issued the “routine communication” and the public believed it to be a real tsunami warning for the West Coast of North America including Alaska and Hawaii.

In a report in U.S. News: A representative of the center said their phones were ringing off the hook for two hours after the alert went out. An Alaska resident named Travis Neff said he heard the warning while driving to work. “I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I was poised waiting to hear that it was ‘just a test,’ but that never occurred.”

Finally, five hours later, the National Weather Service released a statement saying no tsunami warnings had been issued for Alaska. “There is no tsunami threat,” the statement conveyed plainly.

The chief operating officer for Radio Free Palmer said what many other people were thinking. “The danger, of course, is the system is designed to alert people. If there are too many false alerts…”

Then there was the alert that went out to the residents of Salem, Oregon. The alert said there was a “Civil Emergency” and to “Prepare for Action.” This message, with no other amplifying information, was sent via the EAS to residents’ cell phones. The message was also broadcast over local television stations.

After an investigation, it was determined that the threat was a toxic algae that had been found in the local water supply. According to the investigation, officials wanted to communicate to area residents that their tap water may not be suitable for consumption and might not be safe for small children or people with immune system issues.

The problem here is that no one had any way of knowing. That critical part of information was left out of the emergency broadcast.

Although there are many, what was the result of both of these particular false alarms? It was panic. Residents immediately rushed to their nearest stores and grabbed anything they could. Chaos ensued.

Then to further incite residents into a full-fledged crisis, half an hour after the first alert, a second alert was sent with little additional information. But one tidbit in the information was a link to the municipal website. This of course grabbed everyone’s attention and the system crashed under the load. According to one resident: “It almost made me not want to go outside,” he said. “I didn’t know if there was something going on in the area. Or if there was a shooter. You just had no way of knowing.”

Things can really take a strange twist. We all remember the January 2018 controversy that arose due to one single employee pushing the wrong button about a missile alert and scaring the residents of Hawaii into a panic. The message they saw on their phones: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Did you hear about the “Zombie Alert”? That’s right. Residents in Lake Worth, Florida (population of over 37,000 people) received multiple alerts about “zombie activity” after a power outage. The issue? The system was hacked. Folks, that should scare the hell out of you.

(Credit: Pixabay/currens)

There are over 1,000 different federal, state, and local government agencies that have the ability to issue emergency alerts through the federally-managed Emergency Alert System. This is such a patchwork system, that a teenager in his mother’s basement could hack any number of systems.

Now imagine the chaos that could be created if a concerted effort was made by terrorists (foreign or domestic) issuing false alerts? Then the chaos would ensue as they initiate coordinated attacks in the middle of the panic and authorities are unable to issue warnings using the very system that was hacked…or they are able and no one believes them.

It is time to contact your elected officials and demand reform. We need a better infrastructure and better training. Until then, you can expect to see many more false alarms. The single largest problem is the same as we saw in Aesop’s fable. People will become apathetic and disinterested. They won’t pay attention. Worse still, most people are simply not prepared for an emergency. For now, what should we do?

The simple solution is to believe every alarm and make sure you are prepared. Make sure you have at least 30 days of supplies for you and your family. You don’t have to do it all at once but, over time, build up your emergency supplies. Trust me, when the real emergency hits you will be glad you took the preparations.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Rene Sotolongo

Rene is an OpsLens contributor and retired Navy Information Systems Technician Chief Petty Officer.

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