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Dallas blames hacker for setting off all 156 emergency warning sirens

Apr 09, 20174 mins
CyberattacksData and Information SecurityInternet Security

City officials claim a hack set off all emergency warning sirens for about 90 minutes

Imagine it being nearly midnight and the emergency warning sirens start wailing and continue to scream for about an hour and a half.

That’s what happened in Dallas on Friday at 11:42 p.m. The city’s 156 emergency sirens blasted out warnings and continued to wail until 1:17 a.m. on Saturday. Dallas officials claim the siren warning system was hacked, and it was one of the largest breaches of an emergency siren system.

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At first, a city spokesperson blamed the blaring sirens on a “system malfunction.” The 1.6 million people in the city were asked to stop calling 911 because there was no emergency. The normal wait time for a 911 call in Dallas is reportedly 10 seconds, but at one point the 911 system was so clogged with calls that the wait time stretched to six minutes.

The Dallas FBI attempted to calm people down by tweeting that the emergency sirens were malfunctioning and there was neither severe weather nor an active emergency.

Yet since it wasn’t storming, some people mistook the blaring sirens as a “warning sign of a ‘bomb or something, a missile,’” according to Sana Syed, the city’s public information officer. She told The New York Times, “I can understand the concern” and noted the recent airstrikes in Syria.

Dallas fire dispatch crews had to manually shut down the sirens’ radio system and repeaters. Dallas’s Office of Emergency Management engineers worked through the night to determine what triggered the sirens. They decided to blame a hacker.

“We can state at this time that the city’s siren system was hacked Friday night,” Syed said in a press statement. “For security reasons, we cannot discuss the details of how this was done, but we do believe that the hack came from the Dallas area. We have notified the FCC for assistance in identifying the source of this hack. We are putting in safeguards to ensure this type of hack does not happen again.”

She added, “Every time we thought we had turned it off, the sirens would sound again, because whoever was hacking us was continuously hacking us.”

City Emergency Management Director Rocky Vaz told Reuters, “The sirens went through 15 cycles of a 90-second activation before they were shut down.”

He added, “This is a very, very rare event” and cited industry experts as saying “the hack was among the largest ever to affect emergency sirens.”

Where the hackers got in

While city officials don’t know who hacked the system, Vaz added that officials have a “good deal of confidence that this was someone outside our system.” 

According to NBC News, Vaz claimed, “We have now pinpointed it to one area where we think they were able to get into our system and activate all the sirens, and put that into a mode where they sent signals for it to be activated over 60 times.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called the hack “an attack on our emergency notification system. We will work to identify and prosecute those responsible.”

Mayor Rawlings added, “This is yet another serious example of the need for us to upgrade and better safeguard our city’s technology infrastructure. It’s a costly proposition, which is why every dollar of taxpayer money must be spent with critical needs such as this in mind. Making the necessary improvements is imperative for the safety of our citizens.”

Dallas News reported that the system is being “safeguarded” from another hack, but it is expected to “be restored Sunday or Monday—in time for thunderstorms that are expected to begin rolling through the area early next week.”

Let’s hope there isn’t a tornado or other severe weather before the system is reactivated—and that people won’t blow off the sirens the next time they start screaming.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.