#1 Hawaii missile alert: How one employee ‘pushed the wrong button’ and caused a wave of panic by ThirstyMan 15.01.2018 05:03


By Amy B Wang January 14, 2018

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday morning, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency settled in at the start of his shift. Among his duties that day was to initiate an internal test of the emergency missile warning system: essentially, to practice sending an emergency alert to the public without actually sending it to the public.

It was a drill the agency had started with some regularity last November — around the time Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea — and so, while the tests were not yet routine enough to be predictable, they were not entirely new either, according to an agency spokesman.

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

“In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option,” HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza told The Washington Post on Sunday.

Around 8:07 a.m., an errant alert went out to scores of Hawaii residents and tourists on their cellphones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” A more detailed message scrolled across television screens in Hawaii, suggesting, “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

The false warning sparked a wave of panic as thousands of people, many assuming they had only minutes to live, scrambled to seek shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones. The situation was exacerbated by a 38-minute gap between the initial alert and a subsequent wireless alert stating the missile warning was a mistake.

Hours afterward, Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) apologized for the “pain and confusion” the wayward alert had caused and said it had been “a mistake made during a standard procedure at the changeover of a shift and an employee pushed the wrong button.” But one day after the debacle, more details are emerging about how such a mistake occurred, amid growing calls for accountability and for a close reexamination of the wireless emergency alert system.

On Sunday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called the false alert “absolutely unacceptable” and said a full investigation was “well underway.” At least initially, Pai seemed to cast blame on state-level officials for the error.

“Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert,” Pai said in a statement. “Federal, state, and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them. We also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”

Pai did not elaborate on what safeguards or process controls were lacking in Hawaii that might typically be in place elsewhere. Wireless emergency alerts are dispatched during critical emergency situations — to warn the public of dangerous weather, missing children and security threats — and are a partnership of the FCC, FEMA and the wireless industry. While the FCC establishes rules and regulations surrounding emergency alerting, responsibility for sending those messages typically falls to emergency management officials.

Part of what worsened the situation Saturday was that there was no system in place at the state emergency agency for correcting the error, Rapoza said. The state agency had standing permission through FEMA to use civil warning systems to send out the missile alert — but not to send out a subsequent false alarm alert, he said.

Though the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency posted a follow-up tweet at 8:20 a.m. saying there was “NO missile threat,” it wouldn’t be until 8:45 a.m. that a subsequent cellphone alert was sent telling people to stand down.

“We had to double back and work with FEMA [to craft and approve the false alarm alert] and that’s what took time,” Rapoza said.

That has since been remedied, he said, with a cancellation option that can be triggered within seconds of a mistake.

“In the past there was no cancellation button. There was no false alarm button at all,” Rapoza said. “Now there is a command to issue a message immediately that goes over on the same system saying ‘It’s a false alarm. Please disregard.’ as soon as the mistake is identified.”


The federal government keeps track of North Korean launches through several means, including satellite surveillance, and officials around Trump would have known that no missile was detected.

Trump was not seen in public Saturday, and he issued no statements about the incident.

The only public mention of the incident came from deputy White House Press Secretary Lindsay Walters, who made clear that the federal government was not involved.

“The president has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise. This was purely a state exercise,” Walters said.

Walters also accompanied Trump to Florida.

While there is no protocol that applies directly to such a mistake, past presidents have often weighed in to reassure the public at times of stress or threat. ​


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