Who Should Warn The Public Of Nuclear War? America's emergency alert system expects local authorities to warn the public in case of a ballistic missile attack. Some wish the feds would cut out the middle man.

Who Should Warn The Public Of Nuclear War?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. Remember back to that false alarm that went off in Hawaii last month. This is one that sent an alert to people's phones warning of an inbound missile. Investigators say that warning was sent by a state employee who mistakenly believed the exercise was an actual attack. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that the mishap exposed a deeper problem in the nation's missile alert system, uncertainty over whose job it should be to warn the public.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If a missile's headed your way, you're supposed to get an emergency alert. That's the warning that's accompanied by the shrill, two-tone alert sound. You've heard it - this is a test, this is only a test. I'm actually not allowed to play the sound here because I'd get NPR in trouble with the FCC. The government wants people to take that sound seriously, and it's using it on phones now, too. Here's a FEMA public service announcement about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEMA PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As narrator) Wireless emergency alerts. Real-time information directly from local sources you know and trust. With the unique sound and vibration, you'll be in the know wherever you are.

KASTE: But who sends out the message in the event of a missile attack? If you ask the feds, they say it's not them. At FEMA, Mark Lucero is chief of engineering for the public alerting system which goes by the acronym IPAWS.

MARK LUCERO: FEMA will tell the states that there is a missile inbound and where it's going to land and to issue protective actions. Then the state will initiate any plans it has in place, one of which being issuing an alert to the public telling them what to do.

KASTE: And this is echoed by FEMA's national warning system manual. It says the feds notify state authorities and then, quote, "local authorities sound the attack warning signal on public warning devices." For this local official, that comes as a surprise.

FRANCISCO SANCHEZ: Military events are not something that we envision or have within the scope of our responsibilities to alert for.

KASTE: Francisco Sanchez is deputy emergency management coordinator in Harris County, Texas. That's the Houston area. He knows the national emergency alert system pretty well because he played a role in the system's recent upgrades, and yet until NPR contacted him, he did not realize that the feds expected these public missile warnings to come from local agencies like his. He says if that happened, they'd have to scramble.

SANCHEZ: Eighteen minutes before a missile gets here, who am I going to call at the DOD if I get that alert on my phone to verify this is real, we should re-share it? Who can I get confirmation and double confirmation from to make sure this is an authentic alert that isn't result of a hack or that isn't a mistake? By the time I do that, something's gone boom.

KASTE: And NPR got similar reactions from other emergency management agencies around the country. Some of them do have missile attack warnings and instructions ready to go, but others had assumed that those messages would be sent straight to the public from higher up. The feds do have the technical capacity to send out those warnings themselves, and Benjamin Krakauer says they should make it clear that they will. He's with New York City's Office of Emergency Management, and this is him speaking about this at a congressional hearing last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN KRAKAUER: The federal government really is in the best position to detect a threat from a state actor and issue warnings initially to the general public. Time is of the essence, and state and local authorities are not really in the best position to make those notifications.

KASTE: The big irony here is that the false alarm happened in Hawaii because it's the unusual case of a state that was actually focusing on its responsibility to warn the public about missiles and was frequently practicing sending out those missile alerts - until one of them slipped out for real. As a result, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz now says it's time to hand that job over to the federal government exclusively. He's introduced legislation to do that. But for the time being, warning the public about inbound missiles is still up to local and state officials, and more of them are now realizing that they need to be ready to send that message out.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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