OOPS! ‘Wrong button’ sends out false missile alert
Officials vow changes after an alert system test goes awry, causing 38 minutes of terror
After people across the state were told for months to prepare for a possible nuclear attack from North Korea, for 38 terrifying minutes on Saturday morning the deadly moment seemed to have arrived. A state employee in a Diamond Head bunker clicked his mouse twice and informed a million and a half residents and tourists that the missile was on its way. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the warning stated.
No, it wasn’t a drill. It was a mistake. “Human error,” said Gov. David Ige. A mistake that left many shaken, angry and questioning the credibility of their government.
Tourists in Waikiki were asked to go into the basement of their hotels, passengers at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport were not allowed to check in and were sent down to the baggage claim area, and families at parks ran to their cars for shelter. Cellphones were jammed with people calling family and friends to find out what was going on or simply say a final goodbye. “Today is a day most of us will never forget,” Ige said at a news conference in the same Diamond Head bunker from which the fake warning was sent. “A day when many in our community thought that our
worst nightmare might actually be happening.”
He said he was angry about what happened, apologized for the pain and confusion it sowed, and promised to improve the emergency management systems. The confusion caused by the human error was compounded by a lack of procedures in place to revoke the false alarm, causing the 38-minute delay before the state sent out a text correction.
“We are doing everything we can immediately to ensure that it never happens again,” Ige said. The trouble began about 8:05 a.m. when an employee was running through a routine test of the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alert System in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency headquarters inside Diamond Head crater.
The wrong button
The employee clicked the wrong button on a computer screen, selecting the missile alert message rather than the test alert that would have sent a message that stayed within the building. The employee then clicked a second button to confirm he wanted to send out the erroneous alert. The employees in the center did not know that they had issued an error until they got a phone call from officials looking for more information.
About three minutes after the alert went out, the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, state Adjutant Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, verified with U.S. Pacific Command that there was no launch and notified Honolulu police. Thirteen minutes after the erroneous text, HEMA finally posted to Facebook and Twitter that it was a false alarm, but it would take another 25 minutes for a correction text alert to go out.
Vern Miyagi, administrator for HEMA, said the agency had to wait until it received authorization from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send out a retraction. The correction was finally sent at 8:45 a.m.
Ige said part of the reason for the delay was the state didn’t have a process in place to issue a cancellation and the correction had to be done manually after receiving federal approval.
The Emergency Alert System is a national network with local access for disseminating civil defense and emergency messages. Correction alerts, however, are not authorized for the system, which was the reason the state needed federal approval before sending the retraction.
Some sirens sound off
Adding to the panic, some military bases voluntarily activated their sirens due to the false alarm, said Richard Rapoza, spokesman for HEMA.
Windward Oahu resident Diane Pizarro said she was at home with her family when she received the alert and heard sirens start to go off.
“That gave more credibility to the text,” she said. “It was several scary minutes with our children, who were terrified, before we saw a tweet that it was a false alarm.” Miyagi blamed himself for the error.
“I accept responsibility for this,” he said. “This is my team.”
He said he spent the last few months trying to prepare the state in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack from North Korea and set up a warning system.
Miyagi said while he regrets what happened, it brought awareness about what to do and expect in such an attack.
“Please keep in mind that again the threat is there,” he said. “If this comes out, you’re only going to have 12 to 13 minutes of warning for the actual event. Please take this to heart.”
Ige said the missile alert test has been suspended until procedures are reviewed and measures are taken to prevent a repeat of the error.
In the future, officials will require two people to confirm the activation of the notification system for tests and actual missile launches, he said. And a cancellation command has also been put in place.
Officials said a formal preliminary report of findings and corrective actions will be issued next week.
The Federal Communications Commission said it was launching a “full investigation into what happened.”
Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, said, “Emergency alerts are meant to keep us and our families safe, not to create false panic. We must investigate and we must do better.”
Politicians speak up
Hawaii’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers were quick to add their voices to the growing chorus of officials calling Saturday’s mistake unacceptable, and pledged to investigate what went wrong.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was among the first people to start alerting the public via Twitter that the emergency warning was a false alarm, saying at 8:19 a.m. that she had confirmed with officials there was no incoming missile.
She later tweeted, “Our leaders have failed us for decades, refused to take this threat seriously and prevent a nuclear North Korea, and the people of Hawaii are now paying the price.”
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said in an interview from Washington, D.C., that President Donald Trump has failed to ease tensions with North Korea, putting Hawaii in danger. “The tensions between the United States and North Korea are not helping at all, which is one of the reasons that the state of Hawaii has to even attempt to do its best to be prepared for a potential missile strike,” Hirono said. “The goal should be to prevent these missile strikes from happening to begin with. That means that we need to strengthen our diplomatic route to creating stability in the Korean Peninsula.”
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and candidate for governor, who was on Oahu on Saturday, said she plans to initiate the congressional inquiry process when she gets back to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was also in Honolulu when he got the alert, said what happened was “totally inexcusable.”
“This false alarm caused real harm across the state. People were in tears, people were sheltering in place, businesses were shuttered, nobody knew what to do. But more than that, we need to be able to rely on our emergency notification system so that when we see or hear ‘this is not a test,’ we need to be able to rely on that 100 percent,” he said. Leadership in the state House and Senate pledged to investigate the incident. A joint informational briefing has been scheduled for Friday before the Senate Government Operations and Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs committees, and the House Public Safety Committee.
Today is a day most of us will never forget. A day when many in our community thought that our worst nightmare might actually be happening.” Gov. David Ige At a news conference in the same Diamond Head bunker from which the false alarm was sent
At least three dozen people turned out on a sidewalk on Ala Moana Boulevard in front of the Prince Kuhio Federal Building on Saturday to wave anti-war signs, shouting, “No nukes, no excuse.” Karolina Turska, left, held a sign repeating the chant, while Pat Bentley, holding her dog, Chica, displayed her “Glutton with the Button” sign.