Two weeks ago, residents of Hawaii kissed their loved ones goodbye or huddled in confusion after emergency warnings of an incoming ballistic missile threat were sent out in error. Forty minutes later, they were told it was all a mistake, and that an employee clicked the wrong button. But a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation has concluded that wasn’t actually what happened.
On January 13th, phones lit up across Hawaii with a message, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” There was no missile, but according to a preliminary report released by the FCC on Tuesday, the situation was a drill. The drill simply wasn’t intended to test whether American’s in Hawaii can run and poop their pants at the same time.
With tensions over nuclear war between the US and North Korea running high, the false warning couldn’t have come at a worse time. People were genuinely scared and wanted answers, and in the weeks that have ensued those answers have changed. Initial reports claimed that an employee that was wrapping up his shift accidentally chose the wrong option on a poorly designed drop-down menu. State and local officials work in partnership with the FCC, FEMA, and private telecoms when sending out emergency alerts. The FCC’s report says that the employee actually did believe there was an emergency, and that there was miscommunication between supervisors at the state-run facility that monitors missile activity.
The report puts forth a timeline of events in which a night-shift supervisor decided to run a spontaneous drill with the day-shift as they came into work. Apparently, the day shift’s supervisor had been informed that a drill was going to take place but they were under the impression it was to test the night-shift’s response. So, the day-shift supervisor wasn’t ready to guide their team through the process.
As the changing of the guard was underway, the night-shift supervisor initiated a pre-recorded message that employees were intended to believe came from U.S. Pacific Command. The message, unfortunately, did “not follow the script contained in HI-EMA’s standard operating procedure for this drill,” according to the FCC. It did include the line, “exercise, exercise, exercise.” But it also contained “the text of an EAS message for a live ballistic missile alert, including the language, ‘THIS IS NOT A DRILL.’”
The worker who ultimately sent the alarming warning to the people of Hawaii told the FCC investigators in a written statement that they didn’t hear the “exercise” portion of the recording, and they genuinely thought they were in a crisis situation. The employee declined to be interviewed by the investigators.
The warning came as a surprise to the day-shift supervisor at the same time as everyone else. Three minutes after it was sent out, they received the alert on their phone and scrambled to initiate the process of shutting it down and issuing a correction. The second part of that process hit a snag when it was discovered there was no official guidance on how to correct a false alert—meaning it was out of their power to do so.
According to the Washington Post, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai placed the blame on Hawaii’s emergency management agency in a statement on Tuesday. From the report:
“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” Pai said Tuesday. “Each should make sure they have adequate safeguards in place … The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an alert it is indeed a credible alert.”
In a separate action Tuesday, the FCC voted to approve new requirements designed to enhance the geo-targeting of cellphone alerts. This move is aimed at making the distribution of alerts more accurate so that those outside of an emergency area will not receive warnings that do not affect them.
At the time the alert went out, President Trump was reportedly on the golf course. When he got around to addressing the situation the next day, he too blamed Hawaii, saying, “I love that they took responsibility, they took total responsibility, but we’re going to get involved.” But his personal responsibility in the panic seemed to be something he couldn’t understand. “Well, we hope it won’t happen again, but part of it is that people are on edge, and maybe eventually we’ll solve the problem and they won’t have to be so on edge,” he said. The fact is, Trump is at least partially responsible for people being on edge as he continues to treat the nuclear standoff with North Korea as if it were a game of egos and undermines any opportunity to use diplomacy to de-escalate the situation.
The commander-in-chief golfing when people think they’re in the midst of a nuclear crisis was just one of a series of embarrassments that followed the drill. News outlets quickly noticed an AP photo of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency was circulating in reports and one of the computers in the room had its password written on a post-it stuck to the monitor. And Hawaii’s Governor lamented his inability to clear up the situation faster for his constituents, he couldn’t remember his Twitter password at the time.
So, the false alert in Hawaii was a disaster that exposed incompetence and poor communication from the top of the government to the bottom. It demonstrated that the US isn't prepared for a nuclear situation, and we’re scared that there’s a realistic possibility that it could happen in the near future. And we learned that many parts of the system need to be fixed, and the people who are charged with doing the fixing are most concerned with passing the blame. In other words, great drill everybody. [FCC via Washington Post]