A private forecasting company took what was intended to be a routine National Weather Service test message and sent it to subscribers’ phones as an official tsunami warning Tuesday morning, the latest in a spate of false alarms since last month.
AccuWeather blamed the National Weather Service for the false alarm, saying the government weather agency “miscoded” a test message as a real warning.
The National Tsunami Warning Center sent the test message around 8:30 a.m. EST on Tuesday. Users of the popular AccuWeather app then got a false tsunami alert. The message was pushed to mobile devices throughout the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The Weather Channel said its users also saw the bogus warning on the company’s mobile app and website for about an hour, though it wasn’t sent as a push notification.
The word “TEST” appeared in the header of the government agency’s message, but State College, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather said it automatically passes along weather service warnings based on a computer scan of codes, with no human input.
“Tsunami warnings are especially time sensitive given the fact that people may have only minutes to react to a tsunami threat,” said Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s vice president of business services. “As such, we process them with the utmost concern and deliver them promptly and automatically as soon as they’re received by the government.”
Jeremy DaRos, of Portland, Maine, said the alert made him “jump” because he lives a stone’s throw from the water and was aware of recent spate of small earthquakes that made the alert seem plausible.
“Looking out the window and seeing the ocean puts you in a different frame of mind when you get a tsunami warning,” he said. He said that after clicking on the push notification for details he realized it was just a test.
The weather service said earlier Tuesday that it was looking into why the test message was transmitted as a real alert. It did not immediately respond to AccuWeather’s assertions about the coding errors.
AccuWeather said its systems worked as intended.
“AccuWeather was correct in reading the mistaken NWS codes embedded in the warning. The responsibility is on the NWS to properly and consistently code the messages, for only they know if the message is correct or not,” AccuWeather said in a statement.
AccuWeather had warned the weather service about incorrectly coded emergency messages after a similar problem in 2014.
“We understand the reason for test messages, but we feel that NWS consider failsafe measures for the future to prevent such an occurrence,” AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers wrote to the weather service, adding the system is “less than perfect.”
Myers, who co-founded AccuWeather, is President Donald Trump’s pick to head the government agency that oversees the weather service.
Tuesday’s false alert didn’t create nearly as much panic as last month’s bogus ballistic missile warning in Hawaii. The state employee who sent the alert was fired.
Also last month, a malfunction triggered sirens at a North Carolina nuclear power plant.