Skip Walters, operations manager of KMON, demonstrates how emergency alerts used to get printed on paper. Today, Emergency Alert System messages sent from the Department of Emergency Services or the National Weather Service are saved digitally. (Photo: Michael Beall, The Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune)
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Michael Beall, Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune
- Hoax reached 10 stations in five states
- Alert was aired on same frequencies as national public warning system
- Federal agencies believe hoax originated overseas
GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- Zombies weren't walking the streets here Monday, but a false alert that aired on two local TV stations went through the same channels on which true emergencies are aired, raising questions and concerns of how the hoax occurred.
The hoax reached around 10 stations in Montana, Michigan, California, Utah and New Mexico, said Greg MacDonald, the CEO of Montana Broadcasters Association.
The alert featured a scrolling warning for various Montana counties and a voice-over claimed there were "dead bodies rising from the grave and attacking the living" and urged people to use caution.
"Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are extremely dangerous," it said.
MacDonald said the FBI and the FCC are investigating the cases, and initial findings have officials believing the hoax originated somewhere overseas.
"It's a serious issue. Initially people laughed about zombies, but then you start digging and find that it's not that funny," he said.
The Emergency Alert System is a national public warning system that requires broadcasters to provide the communications capability to the president to address the American public during a national emergency, according to the Federal Communication Commission's website. It's also used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information to specific areas.
The zombie message that originated at KRTV went viral. It was the story of the day on JimRomenesko.com, a journalism industry blog. Stations from as large as CNN to smaller local news outlets across the country aired the story, most in a lighthearted fashion.
Cynthia Thompson of WBUP ABC 10 in northern Michigan said it was determined that a "back-door" attack allowed the hacker to access the security of the Emergency Alert System equipment.
Cindy Paavola, spokeswoman for the University of Northern Michigan, whose college TV station was also apparently hacked, said authorities have pinpointed the origin of the source and that it is somewhere other than the United States. Investigators believe the cases are connected, but have not yet confirmed that.
Great Falls police Sgt. Bryan Slavik said he's received calls from the BBC in London, newspapers in Australia and Canada, the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, as well as TV and radio stations around the world. The questions are all the same, and his response has been that Great Falls is taking it as a joke.
"Everyone is treating it exactly as it was -- a hoax," Slavik said.
He said KRTV isn't talking to anyone, and they haven't made a criminal complaint to the police department.
When contacted by the Tribune, Montana Television Network executive Jon Saunders of Bozeman emailed the following statement:
"Thanks for your inquiry. KRTV along with several other stations across the country was subject to a cyber attack that intruded into our EAS system. We're still investigating what happened."
Skip Walters, operations manager for Great Falls' Cherry Creek Radio, found it odd that no one else rebroadcast the message. It never went through his radio station or any of the other Great Falls TV or radio stations.
"This all works on radio waves. How were they able to hack into KRTV with radio waves but only yards away, they couldn't hack into KFBB?" asked Steve Keller, the radio program director.
The EAS message that struck KRTV and the Michigan stations also had the look and sound of a true alert. Each incident had a crawl on the TV alerting counties and a mechanically altered voice warning of "zombies attacking the living."
The minute the alert hit ABC 10 in Michigan, the station alerted the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, which alerted law enforcement, WBUP's Thompson said.
"Standard practice is to report the news and not be a part of it," Thompson said, laughing about the story. "The only thing that would make this funnier would be if it happened on Halloween. We're just making lemonade out of lemons."
The most ironic part of it all, she said, is that their newsroom overlooks a graveyard.