‘Radiological hazard’ warning was fake — but it’s still a warning

Residents of Washington state’s Olympic Penninsula were given a scare Thursday night when an alarming message flashed across their TV screens in a bold, huge font:

“RADIOLOGICAL HAZARD WARNING.”

Local authorities — in this case, Jefferson County 9-1-1 services — quickly took to Facebook to identify the message as a false alarm.  Still, the incident is just another frightening mistake revealing the worrisome fragility of America’s early warning systems.    In the past two years, Hawaii residents were unnerved by a false warning of an incoming missile; Oregonians were told about a false oncoming tsunami; and Dallas residents were kept up all night by hijacked siren system.

Local media suggests the Washington incident was the work of hackers, but without evidence at this point.  (“The false alarm was distributed to an unknown number of Wave cable customers could have been the work of hackers who accessed the cable system, Jefferson County Emergency Operations officials told KING 5 News.”)

Jefferson County 9-1-1 posted this reassuring message on Thursday:

“This message is coming across WAVE channels in our community. It is being investigated and appears to be an error. Do NOT call 9-1-1 to report this or to ask for an update – we do not have ANY information other than this message is being broadcast and that authorities are investigating it as an erroneous message. So far it appears to only be happening in Jefferson County. The State Department of Emergency Management has no information and no other counties are reporting this alert at this time.”

Whether or not hackers were involved, the lesson of these incidents is the same: as I’ve written before, false alarms are the real fake news. And they are really dangerous. People who study these things know that single points of failure create incredible opportunities for hackers or those who would do us harm.  Imagine someone combining a takeover of the SMS warning systems and sirens simultaneously? Add in the resulting traffic jam of 911 services and you could have a real-world disaster on your hands.

Writing two days after Dallas, I said this:

“It’s 48 hours after a major U.S. city had its sirens blaring all night long. Are you hearing about federal investigations? Are you hearing about executive orders around critical infrastructure? (You did. But then, you didn’t.)”

And so here we are again.  Failure to invest in warning systems leaves our hodge-podge of 1980s technology available for all kinds of mischief, or worse.  Each incident like this provides a another opportunity to take an honest look at our fragile national warning networks and consider a real investment in this infrastructure. Thankfully, the Washington state incident was small scale compared to the other stories in this hall of shame. But we might not be so lucky next time.

And readers, I leave with this frustrating advice: When you see warnings from government officials, in any media form, be skeptical.  It’s critical you take them seriously, quickly. There is an equally dangerous possibility that false alarms might leave the citizenry with a dangerous “cry wolf” attitude.  That’s also a terrible result.  But understand how easily these message delivery systems can be disrupted, and always verify a warning message you see – ideally in an entirely different medium. If you see it on Facebook, look at a reputable news service. If it arrives on your cell phone, turn on the radio, and so on. Have a plan in mind before a false alarm lands in your media landscape.

About Bob Sullivan 1408 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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