Seven months after a false-missile alert rattled Hawaii, some members of Congress are taking steps to fix the flaws in local emergency alert systems that the mishap helped to expose.

On Wednesday, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz announced that he’d teamed with John Thune, a Republican senator from South Dakota, to introduce the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement, or “READI,” Act.

The bipartisan bill looks to ensure that more cell phone users get emergency alerts by removing their ability to opt out of such warnings. It also would require repeated playing of the emergency alerts that run on TV and radio. Currently, those broadcast alerts can only run once, according to a release from Schatz’ office.

Senator Brian Schatz in Honolulu Civil Beat office. 31 may 2017
Following Hawaii’s false missile alert, Sen. Brian Schatz has introduced new legislation aimed at closing the gaps exposed in local emergency-alert systems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In April, when Schatz first declared his intent to introduce the bill, he said the READI Act would “update the broadcast and mobile phone systems that actually deliver the emergency warnings initiated by government entities.”

He added that it “would close gaps in these systems so they don’t fall behind as technology advances.” Those comments came during a special field hearing held by all four members of Hawaii’s federal delegation on the state’s false missile alert at the East-West Center in Manoa.

Much of the content that now appears in the READI Act was discussed during that hearing — particularly in testimony from Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel. She told the Hawaii lawmakers that the state’s emergency alert system plan was more than 10 years out of date and in serious need of a “significant update.”

FCC Commissioner Jennifer Rosenworcel during EW center hearing.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel testifies before Hawaii’s congressional delegation during a hearing at the East-West Center in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The READI Act would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set best practices for any state, local and tribal governments that issue emergency alerts. It would also “encourage” states to update their emergency alert system plans and get FCC approval for those updates.

Under READI, the FCC would explore how to expand local emergency alerts to appear on video-streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Spotify as more consumers use those services instead of traditional broadcast and cable TV.

That also came up at the April hearing. During a visit the previous day to Hawaii Pacific University, Rosenworcel said, she noticed that the students weren’t “watching video the way I did, when I was in school. They watch on whatever screen is handy, whenever they want.”

The existing emergency alert system is not “really well-calibrated to that new watching reality”and it needs to catch up, she said.

The READI Act is a companion to the ALERT Act, which Schatz introduced soon after the Jan. 13 false missile alert. The ALERT Act would wrest the responsibility of warning communities of an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile from local disaster-response officials and give it to federal authorities instead.

It passed the Senate last month and awaits House approval.

Here’s the READI Act:

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