Hawaii missile alert

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2018 Hawaii false missile alert
2018 Hawaii missile alert.jpg
A screenshot of the alert
Date January 13, 2018 (2018-01-13)
Location Hawaii
Type False alarm
Cause Human error[1]

On January 13, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert was issued via the Emergency Alert System and Commercial Mobile Alert System over television, radio, and cellphones in the U.S. state of Hawaii. The alert stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat to Hawaii, advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded "This is not a drill". The message was sent at 8:07 a.m. local time.

A second message, sent 38 minutes later, described the first as a "false alarm". State officials blamed a button pushed in error during an employee shift change at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for the first message. Governor David Ige publicly apologized for the erroneous alert, which caused panic and disruptions throughout the state. The Federal Communications Commission and the Hawaii House of Representatives immediately announced investigations into the incident.

Background[edit]

Estimated maximum range of some North Korean missiles[2]

Escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, including threats by both countries that they could use nuclear weapons against one another, prompted a heightened state of readiness in Hawaii.[3][4][5] North Korea had conducted several intercontinental ballistic missile tests over the past year, most recently in November 2017,[6] enhancing its strike capabilities.[7] It is possible, but not certain, that North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear missiles to Hawaii.[8][9] Hawaii is located roughly 4,600 miles (7,400 km) from North Korea,[4] and a missile launched from North Korea capable of reaching Hawaii would leave residents 12 to 20 minutes to prepare once the alarm sounds.[10][11][12]

Hawaii officials had been working for some time to refresh the state's emergency plans in case of a nuclear attack from North Korea.[4][13] An October 2017 email from the University of Hawaii to students with the subject line "In the event of a nuclear attack",[14] containing instructions from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on how to react in case of a nuclear attack,[15] caused controversy;[14] a university spokesman ultimately apologized for "any needless concern it may have caused".[16] Attack drills were also conducted in the state.[5][17][18] In December 2017, a nuclear threat siren was tested in Hawaii for the first time in more than 30 years,[4][12][19] the first of what state officials said would be monthly drills.[18][20] Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, explained that state leaders "couldn’t ignore these constant threats and missile tests from North Korea" and felt the need to prepare residents for the possibility of an attack. Officials also outlined what would happen if an emergency alert were sent: a push alert to smartphones and a message interrupting television and radio broadcasts.[12][21] The J-Alert used in Japan to warn of tsunamis, etc., also uses the push message notifications.[22] Had a missile truly been launched, the Hawaii push alert should have been followed up with another set of alarms with sirens, which did not happen, as observed by some residents.[23] Other residents did report sirens on Oahu, which reportedly began a few minutes after the push notification. [24]

Earlier in January 2018, U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said the commission planned to vote to overhaul the wireless emergency alert system.[25][26] The proposed reforms include providing more detailed information in alerts and confining emergency notifications to a more specific geographic area. Pai said he hoped the reforms, which would take effect in late 2019 if approved by the FCC, would lead to greater use of the alert system in local emergency situations and prompt people to take alerts they receive more seriously.[26][27]

Incident[edit]

The alert[edit]

The alert was sent at 8:07 a.m. Hawaii–Aleutian Standard Time.[28] People in Hawaii reported seeing the alert on their smartphones. Many screenshots of the push alert were shared on social media platforms, such as Twitter.[29][30] The alert read, in all capital letters:[31]

"BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

Local television broadcasts, including a college basketball game between Florida and Ole Miss being shown on CBS affiliate KGMB and a Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton on NBC affiliate KHNL (both under the ownership and management of Raycom Media under the same operational hub), were also interrupted by a similar alert message.[32][33][34] The alert message on television broadcasts took the form of both an audio message and a scrolling banner. It stated in part:[35]

"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 nearby building or lie on the floor. We will announce when the threat has ended."

An alert message also interrupted radio broadcasts in the state.[36][37] In Lihue, a resident reported hearing a message on the radio advising of "an incoming missile warning for the islands of Kauai and Hawaii".[38]

Vern Miyagi, the administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, later said the alert had been inadvertently triggered by an agency employee during a shift change. He said the emergency message was sent after the employee, a 10-year agency veteran whose name was not released,[39] clicked the wrong button on Hawaii’s emergency alert interface while running a test of the state's ballistic missile preparations computer program[40][41][a] and then clicked through a second screen, which had been intended as a safeguard, to confirm.[42][43] An agency spokesman told The Washington Post that the employee, prompted to choose between the options "test missile alert" and "missile alert", had selected the latter, initiating the alert sent out across the state.[44]

State response[edit]

By 8:10 a.m. HST, officials later said, Hawaii National Guard Adjutant General Arthur "Joe" Logan had contacted U.S. Pacific Command and confirmed there had been no missile launch. At that time, the Honolulu Police Department was notified that the alert had been a false alarm. Officials used the State Warning Point system at 8:13 a.m. to cancel the alert, preventing it from being sent out to any phones that had not already received it, such as those that were switched off or did not have reception.[45]

Official messages refuting the emergency alert were not sent out until 8:20 a.m., according to the timeline released by officials after the incident. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accounts on Facebook and Twitter posted messages at that time urging people to disregard the erroneous alert. Governor David Ige retweeted the HI-EMA message on Twitter and posted a similar message on Facebook minutes later to notify followers that the alert had been canceled.[45] An email from the state was also sent about 25 minutes after the first alert advising that it was not correct.[1] Electronic highway signs were also used to spread the word that the alert had been issued "in error" and that there was no threat to Hawaii.[46]

Second alert[edit]

At 8:45 a.m. HST, 38 minutes after the initial alert was sent to smartphones in Hawaii,[30] a second emergency alert was sent, which stated:[47]

"There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm."

The second alert was sent "well after everyone from Hawaii’s congressional delegation to the U.S. Pacific Command had assured the world on Twitter that it was a false alarm", Pacific Business News remarked.[48]

Governor David Ige explained at a news conference that afternoon that officials "had to initiate a manual process" and obtain authorization from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to send the second alert, because there was no automated way to cancel the first alert.[43] Those procedures accounted for the delay more than 30 minutes after officials had confirmed internally that the alert was inaccurate, according to officials.[43][45]

Impacts[edit]

During the 38 minutes between the first and second alerts, Hawaii's siren warning system — which had been tested as part of a missile preparedness exercise the previous month for the first time since the Cold War[49] — was not formally activated;[48][50] nevertheless, officials stated that some sirens did appear to go off in some communities.[51][52] Little to no activity was reported at military bases in the state.[48] Some commercial flights were reportedly delayed for a short time, although the Hawaii Department of Transportation said there were no widespread impacts at the state's airports and harbors.[53]

Disruptions were reported across the state. Honolulu Civil Beat reported that motorists parked inside the Interstate H-3 tunnel on the island of Oahu for shelter.[54] Hawaii News Now reported that alarms sounded at Aloha Gymfest, an international gymnastics meet in Kailua, sending hundreds of people running for cover.[55][56] Students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa reportedly headed for marked fallout shelters on campus but, finding them locked, ended up taking shelter in nearby classrooms instead.[15] Officials at the Sony Open PGA Tour golf tournament on Oahu ordered an evacuation of the media center, while staff members sought cover in the kitchen and players' locker room.[57] Tourists at Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe were reportedly taken up to a concrete bunker in the mountains by staff and told to shelter in place there.[58] Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa later said her husband had been driving on a Honolulu-area freeway and saw cars speeding at up to 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) after the alert was sent out.[59] Many Hawaii residents and visitors sought shelter or rushed through emergency preparations where they were.[20][55][60][61] Others discounted the alarm when they realized that they heard no sirens, and that there was no immediate coverage on television or local radio.[50][62]

The incident also created a strain on Hawaii's telephone system. Civil Defense offices in Hawaii were inundated with calls from frightened residents asking for advice or more information, the New Zealand Herald reported.[60] Many calls to 9-1-1 would not go through.[20][63] Many wireless data services were likewise initially jammed, leaving many unable to access the Internet to confirm whether the alarm was real.[64] Some residents called friends or family members to say goodbye.[50][55]

Just as the false alert was not triggered by an actual ballistic missile launch, the incident did not lead to an exchange of fire between the United States and North Korea. New York Times columnist Max Fisher compared the January 13 false alarm to the 1983 destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviet Air Force, which apparently mistook it for an American spy plane. Anger and confusion in both the United States and Soviet Union surrounding the incident could have touched off nuclear war at a time when Cold War tensions were already running high, Fisher wrote, and similarly, the U.S. government could have overreacted to an error in Hawaii's emergency warning system or the North Korean government could have misinterpreted it as cover for a U.S. first strike.[3] U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed after the incident that it did not appear to have prompted any sort of reaction from the North Korean government.[65]

Responses[edit]

Twitter posts and screenshots of text messages shared on social media in the immediate wake of the first alert conveyed confusion, alarm, and fear among those who received the warning.[66][30][33][67][68]

Federal officials[edit]

Members of Hawaii's congressional delegation also took to Twitter to dispel the false alarm. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tweeted at 8:19 a.m. HST, about 12 minutes after the initial alert was sent, stating in all capitals that the message was a "false alarm" and that she had confirmed with officials that there was no incoming ballistic missile toward Hawaii.[29] The next day, she told CNN that the incident highlighted the need for President Donald Trump to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to resolve nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea, and she called for those responsible for the erroneous alert in Hawaii "to be held accountable".[69] Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, a 2018 candidate for governor, tweeted that the "panic and fear created by this false alarm was very dangerous".[48] In further comments, Hanabusa panned the delay between the two emergency alerts, suggesting it should not have taken 38 minutes for the second message to be sent.[70] Senator Mazie Hirono tweeted that officials "need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again".[71] In his own tweets immediately after the incident, Senator Brian Schatz repeated that the first alert had been a false alarm. He described the erroneous alert message as "totally inexcusable", adding,[34]

"The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process."

Commander David Benham, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, confirmed to media that there was no imminent missile threat to Hawaii.[71] A spokesman for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) stated that "NORAD did not see anything that indicated any sort of threat to Hawaii" and said NORAD and U.S. Northern Command were still verifying what had happened.[57] A White House official said the alert had been part of "a state exercise" and President Trump was briefed on the situation.[71][72] Trump ordered National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to take charge of the administration's response to the incident.[73]

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the incident was "unfortunate" and officials were working to prevent a similar false alert from being issued in the future.[51] Speaking on Fox News the next day, she said people "can trust government systems" and should pay attention to any alerts they receive from authorities in the future, in spite of the January 13 incident in Hawaii.[74]

Ajit Pai, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, announced the commission would launch a full investigation into the false alert.[25][26][75] He blamed Hawaii's government for not having "reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert".[76]

Gabbard stated in an interview after the second emergency alert was sent that the incident was "a taste of the stark reality of what we face here of a potential nuclear strike on Hawaii", referring to the possibility of a North Korean attack.[47] She and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry both said the false alert highlighted the possibility of an "accidental nuclear war", in which a technical or human error leads to the use of nuclear weapons due to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.[3][74]

State officials[edit]

David Ige, who served as Governor of Hawaii at the time of the crisis.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell also tweeted that the message had been a false alarm, saying the message had been sent in error, before the second alert was sent out by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.[67]

HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi took responsibility for the incident.[48] Miyagi described the initial warning as a "mistake",[71] saying it "should have been caught" before the alert was sent out.[25] A HI-EMA spokesman initially said the agency was running a drill at the time, although he noted that standard drills do not involve the sending of an emergency alert.[77] A button had been erroneously pushed during a shift change.[71] He said the incident was being investigated but initial indications suggested it was "a technical issue".[77] HI-EMA officials, including Miyagi, said there was no evidence that the agency's systems had been hacked to send the false emergency message.[58]

Miyagi apologized for the false alert, as did Governor David Ige, who called the incident "unfortunate and regrettable". They said officials would review the state's procedures to prevent it from happening again.[25] Ige said:[45]

"I know first-hand how today's false alarm affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused. I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can do to immediately improve our emergency management systems, procedures and staffing."

Hawaii Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English said he was "outraged" by the error, which caused unnecessary "panic and pandemonium" throughout the state.[70] Hawaii House of Representatives Speaker Scott K. Saiki announced the House would investigate the incident:[1]

"This system we have been told to rely upon failed and failed miserably today. I am deeply troubled by this misstep that could have had dire consequences. Measures must be taken to avoid further incidents that caused wholesale alarm and chaos today. Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations. Apparently, the wrong button was pushed and it took over 30 minutes for a correction to be announced. Parents and children panicked during those 30 minutes. The Hawaii House of Representatives will immediately investigate what happened and there be consequences. This cannot happen again."

The deputy adjutant of the Hawaii National Guard said that notwithstanding the erroneous alert, people should continue to follow instructions and take shelter if another alert is sent in the future.[53]

Aftermath[edit]

State officials held a news conference in the afternoon of January 13 to address the incident. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency head Vern Miyagi said the agency had suspended tests while assessing what had happened. He also announced it had immediately changed its procedures to require two people, instead of just one, to send out both test alerts and actual alerts.[42] The agency also moved quickly to implement a cancellation command that officials said can be triggered within seconds of an erroneous alert being sent out, which it reportedly lacked before the January 13 incident.[45]

Officials did not immediately name the employee responsible for the error. Miyagi declined to say whether the employee, whom he said "feels terrible" about the false alert, would face discipline. Agency employees will be "counseled and drilled so this never happens again", Miyagi said.[46] An agency spokesman said the employee had been "temporarily reassigned" to a position that did not allow him access to the emergency warning system, pending the result of an internal investigation.[44][78]

The Hawaii emergency alert interface screen was updated with a BMD False Alarm selection on January 15.[40][41]

A formal report is expected to be issued later in the month.[45] The Federal Communications Commission announced that it would conduct a full investigation into the incident.[79] Governor David Ige also announced January 15 that he was appointing Brigadier General Kenneth Hara, Hawaii's deputy adjutant general, to oversee a review of the state's emergency management systems and procedures and implement reforms.[80]

HI-EMA reported that some of its employees received death threats after the false alert incident. In a rare public address, Ige called the threats "completely unacceptable" and said he was "ultimately responsible" for the error.[80]

An official with the Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management in the U.S. state of Alaska, also believed to be within the theoretical range of North Korean nuclear missiles, said his department encourages Alaskans to shelter in place rather than trying to get somewhere else in case of an attack, as many people in Hawaii did after the false alert was issued.[81]

On January 16, an NHK news staffer sent an erroneous alert about a North Korean missile fired at Japan to 300,000 followers of its “NHK News and Disaster Prevention” service.[82] Previously, NHK and other Japanese media sent alerts for each North Korean missile test.[82]

About the incident, President Donald Trump said, "They made a mistake."[83] North Korea's Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Communist Party newspaper, described the false alarm as a “tragicomedy.”[84]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The selection for PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY on the the Hawaii emergency alert interface screen is nearby the selections for Amber Alert (CAE) Statewide, Tsunami Warning (CEM) STATE ONLY, Landslide - Hana Road Closure, High Surf Warning North Shores, and other tests.[41]

References[edit]

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