Dallas asks FCC for help in finding siren hackers
City credits T-Mobile ‘ghost calls’ with preparing 911 call centers for surge
The city of Dallas said the network that connects its emergency weather sirens was hacked late Friday, triggering 156 false alarms and thousands of 911 calls from confused citizens throughout the city. The sirens wailed for 90 minutes starting shortly before midnight Friday. Some Dallas residents thought the blaring of multiple sirens might be related to a military attack related to last week’s U.S. action in Syria.
Dallas officials have asked the Federal Communications Commission for help in finding the perpetrator of the hack. They believe someone gained physical access to a hub connecting all the sirens.
“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,” said Rocky Vaz, director of the Dallas office of emergency management. He said that before his team deactivated the sirens, they each blared about 15 times, and that each incident lasted 90 seconds.
The office of emergency management silenced the sirens by unplugging the radios and repeater, Vaz said. He said the city has the capability to deactivate the sirens using an iPhone app, but that system did not work when the city tried to use it Friday night.
“They were able to get into a portion of our system that was talking to all our sirens throughout the city,” Vaz said. “We have contacted the FCC and they are working with us to try to identify where this hack came from and how they did that. … This is like finding a needle in a haystack pretty much. This is going to be a very long process, if we do find out who actually did it. But we do know how they did it, so we can stop that from happening again.”
This is not the first time Dallas municipal infrastructure has been hacked. Last year, electronic traffic signs in Dallas were hacked and instead of displaying traffic messages they showed political messages.
The Dallas weather sirens are part of an emergency system that also includes a reverse 911 system which can call up to 15,000 people, but that system was not affected by this weekend’s hack.
Sana Syed, Dallas public information office, said the city learned valuable lessons from recent problems with its 911 system, and that these helped keep response times as short as possible when the call volume surged early Saturday morning. She said 911 call centers had received about 4,400 calls by 3 a.m. Saturday, double the number they normally get during an entire night.
“I think it’s fair to say that the T-Mobile 911 issue that we’ve had here over the past couple of months really helped make sure that we were prepared for something like this,” she said. “We feel that we were prepared in the 911 call center. We had a backup of up to 6 minutes and considering that we had about 800 people calling in within about a 15 minute span, our call takers did a fantastic job,” Syed said.
Image source: NBCDFW
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