Flint siren hacks put local 911 centers on alert

Ottawa County

OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The piercing sound of a tornado siren can be a lifesaver. A false alarm can be can be costly.

“People will call us and ask us, ‘What’s going on?’ So if we have one that goes off by accident, that will compound our phone load,” Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority Executive Director Tim Smith explained.

Those additional calls could make it more difficult to deal with real calls for help.

“We’re not going to tolerate anybody hacking in to our system,” Smith said.

That has been an ongoing problem on the other side of the state. Dispatch officials in Genesee County believe someone is hacking into tornado sirens in the Flint area. Sirens have been set off at least five times since June, with the most recent incidents happening Tuesday. The FBI and Federal Communications Commission have joined in the investigation into the hacks.

The incidents have the people in charge of sirens in West Michigan taking notice.

“You’ll see some of the security features on this device right off the bat. Obviously, there’s a key,” Ottawa County Emergency Management Director Nick Bonstell said, pointing out one of the security features on the box that sets off the county’s 68 tornado sirens.

Ottawa County’s sirens, which have never been hacked, are protected by a series of security measures, both high-tech and old-school.

The chance of a computer-related hack is minimal.

“These are not systems that are online. So, there is no internet connection to them,” Bonstell said.

Instead, the sirens are set off by radio signals.  

“You use programs and technologies that basically help you to keep those radio frequencies from being intermitted other than through your computer system,” Bonstell said.

Still, when it comes to hacking, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“To say that we’re 100 percent secure would be not the truth. These hackers are very smart and they’re going to figure out ways around some of these different layers,” Bonstell said. “However, we’re getting smarter.”

In addition to looking at ways to improve safety, Ottawa County is working to improve emergency response. Like many counties, it offers Smart911. Through that program, residents can create an account that automatically gives dispatchers information that may be valuable to first responders.

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