After slew of false alerts, local emergency managers say they have safeguards

Congressman says mix-ups "can't happen again"

Emergency alerts notify you instantly when there's danger. But recent high profile incidents show sometimes those messages aren't accurate. 

The ABC Action News I-team has been looking into what local agencies are doing to make sure you get the right information every time and what you can do to better protect your family during the next emergency.  

“The US Pacific Command has detected a threat to Hawaii,” said an alert sent to thousands of cell phones in January.

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The message caused instant panic.

“A missile may impact land or sea within minutes. This is not a drill,” the false alert said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency took 38 minutes to correct the message, twice as long as it would take a real missile from North Korea to hit.

Officials blame human error and inadequate safeguards.

“It doesn't appear that they had the training so it was a real mess,” said Congressman Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District.

“This can't happen again,” he said.

But days later, there was more confusion.

Residents from Maine to Miami, along the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean received a bogus tsunami warning from AccuWeather, after the National Weather Service sent out a monthly test message.

The same week, something caused sirens to go off around a North Carolina nuclear power plant.

“People are scared. And to have some kind of a false alert like that, it's negligence,” said Congressman Bilirakis.

Bilirakis says those false alerts diminish public trust.

“I actually sponsored legislation to take care of the issue, to get the proper training, and it doesn't appear that FEMA followed through,” he said.

That bipartisan legislation, which included more training and modernized equipment, was signed into law by President Obama two years ago.

Bilirakis’ congressional committee oversees the Integrated Public Alert Warning System or “IPAWS”.

It's a patchwork of about a thousand federal, state and local agencies that can issue alerts on everything from TVs, to cell phones, to social media, to traffic signs.

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas County participate in IPAWS.

“It's incredibly valuable. it's our main way of reaching our citizens,” said Hillsborough County EMA Director Marcus Martin.  

Pinellas county EMA Director Joe Borries says local agencies often can’t immediately verify all alerts that come from state or federal agencies, but says they are required to send them. 

“It's absolutely out of my control. If it comes from higher up, I can only control what we do here,” Borries said.

Both Borries and Martin, of Hillsborough County, say they have safeguards in place to prevent what happened in Hawaii.

“Our true hope is that we don't send that message out, by two people verifying any message that we send out,” Martin said.

“Hopefully, that never occurs. But again, if it does, we have the ability to stop that message from going out and then immediately send out a correction,” he said.

The Emergency Alert System in Florida started during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Florida was in the cross-hairs.

Similar potential threats exist today, but now people also receive alerts for threats like hurricanes, wildfires, missing children, civil emergencies and more.

“We look at all hazards and all scenarios,” said Martin.

Emergency managers say you should sign up for alerts from your county and enable cell phone notifications on your phone.

They say with so many warnings coming from so many places, things can go wrong... But when it comes to emergencies, you're better safe than sorry.

“There's always time to verify the message later. I would go ahead and heed the warning in the message,” said Borries.

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com

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