The Dallas Morning News

Radio or phone signals set off sirens, city says

Incident caused by culprit broadcasti­ng tones, not cyberattac­k, officials say

- By ROBERT WILONSKY Staff Writer rwilonsky@dallasnews.com

City officials don’t know who triggered Dallas’ outdoor warning sirens late Friday, but they do know how it was done — by broadcasti­ng a few tones, via either radio or telephone signal.

In other words, there was no computer hack.

“It’s a radio system, not a computer issue,” Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax said Monday morning.

The city’s outdoor warning sirens had to be manually shut down and turned back on late Sunday, with “immediate fixes” intended to prevent the type of incident that woke up — and shook up — much of the city Friday night, according to Broadnax.

“As we brought the system back up, some encryption was

added as part of our process to prevent this type of error from occurring going forward,” he said.

City officials said late Monday that the system was purchased a decade ago and that encryption was not part of the original deal with the vendor for one simple reason: No one at City Hall knew something like this was possible.

“No one had ever seen anything like this,” said Sana Syed, the city’s spokeswoma­n. “No one had ever seen anyone able to break into the entire system and impact every signal.”

Syed said that within 48 hours of Friday’s incident, “the system was not only encrypted, but other safeguards were taken.”

The city is not providing further details on those security upgrades. But the fix could be relatively short-term anyway, as city officials investigat­e replacing the system that triggers the sirens.

Dallas’ emergency warning sirens, like many across the country, are radio-controlled and activated via encoded transmitte­rs that act like pagers, sending tones to receivers attached to each siren. In Dallas’ case, security experts say, it appears that someone took control of the frequency and transmitte­d the tones that turned on all 156 sirens across the city.

Broadnax said he was “leery about [sharing] how these systems work,” citing security concerns. He would confirm only that “it’s a tonaltype system.”

In Moore, Okla. — a town in Tornado Alley that relies on sirens for weather emergencie­s — a base radio station is set up in a secure location. An employee activates the system, and the radio sends out an encoded message via the airwaves. The sirens then receive the message, decode it and start to wail, said Gayland Kitch, director of emergency management for Moore.

It’s likely that whoever activated Dallas’ 156 sirens did so by compromisi­ng the city’s infrastruc­ture and gaining access to the codes, said Jeff Schilling, who has a background in military communicat­ions and is now chief security officer of Armor, a cloud security company based in Richardson.

“If I were doing the investigat­ion, the first thing I would be looking for is former and current employees who have extensive knowledge of how the system works, or contractor­s or maintenanc­e people who have worked on the system,” Schilling said. “It’s very unlikely that someone did this with their own radio gear.”

On Saturday, city officials said they believed the incident originated locally. Broadnax said the Dallas Police Department is leading the investigat­ion and that the FBI and Federal Communicat­ions Commission, which governs — and recently narrowed — the public safety frequency, have been brought in to assist.

“We are not sure what specifical­ly the FCC is going to do and can do in terms of their resources in how they address this case,” he said. “But we are working with the FBI to see if we can find the individual­s who committed this crime, and as the mayor indicated, to make every effort to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

In September, City Auditor Craig Kinton told the council his office planned to review how vulnerable the city is to outside interferen­ce as part of this fiscal year’s audit plan. Broadnax said Monday that it’s likely the city will hire an outside consultant to assess all of its security measures, from the water department to 911.

An action item will be presented to and discussed with the City Council on Wednesday.

Friday night’s incident also alerted city officials to another problem: its inability to tell residents when they shouldn’t panic. The sirens began blaring around 11:40 p.m., and it took the city more than an hour to issue a statement, which it did via social media. Initially, the city said it believed a “malfunctio­n” triggered the sirens.

Some 4,400 calls poured into the city’s already understaff­ed 911 call center, resulting in significan­t delays.

Broadnax, whose first day as city manager was Feb. 1, said the incident made it clear the city needs “more comprehens­ive protocols” when dealing with these types of situations.

 ?? Jae S. Lee/Staff Photograph­er ?? A tornado siren is located at Fire Station 11 in the Oak Lawn neighborho­od in Dallas.
Jae S. Lee/Staff Photograph­er A tornado siren is located at Fire Station 11 in the Oak Lawn neighborho­od in Dallas.

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