‘Nothing I could do’
A Gilbert father receives a frantic phone call from his daughter in Hawaii after an emergency alert is sent out that a missile was reportedly fired.
If the world wasn’t already on edge, an erroneous emergency alert in Hawaii seemingly sent it to the brink Saturday.
Social media lit up about 11:07 a.m. Arizona time — 8:07 a.m. in Hawaii — with screenshots of people’s cellphones showing an alert from an official emergency notification system, like the one that warns of Amber Alerts and imminent weather events across the country.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”
Within 10 minutes, panic swept social media. Friends and family raced to make sense of the alert and glean whether it was real, what to do and how to react. A dearth of information from sources beyond the cellphone alert exacerbated anxieties and stoked confusion.
Daughter reaches out to dad in Arizona
Larry Camp lives in Gilbert and got a call from his daughter in Hawaii shortly after the alert went out. Tatum Mayers and her husband, Jack, live on Oahu.
They were in disbelief. They wondered where to go, hoping it was sent by mistake.
“It was just a very unsettling thing,” Camp told The Arizona Republic. “There was nothing I could do except tell her that I loved her.”
The notification came amid escalating rhetoric from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has repeatedly threatened to strike the United States with a missile.
Hawaii is about 4,600 miles from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
‘An employee pushed the wrong button’
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was among the first officials to say it was a false alert. “There is no incoming missile to Hawaii,” she tweeted in all capital letters about 12 minutes after the first alert. “I have confirmed with officials there is no incoming missile.”
It wasn’t until 11:20 a.m. that the state’s Office of Emergency Management tweeted to allay fears: “NO missile threat to Hawaii.”
A push alert announcing the error as a “false alarm” went out about 40 minutes after the initial alert.
“While I am thankful this morning’s alert was a false alarm, the public must have confidence in our emergency alert system,” Gov. David Ige said in a statement on Twitter. “I am working to get to the bottom of this so we can prevent an error of this type in the future.”
Addressing reporters later in the day, Ige said the error happened during shift change when emergency management employees ensured systems were properly functioning.
“An employee pushed the wrong button,” he said.
Disasters and emergency alerts
The false alarm came on the heels of a year rife with natural disasters and talks about the evolving role of emergency alerts. Those conversations and criticisms are typically rooted in evacuation notices, specifically whether, why and when alerts should be sent to certain population centers.
Experts warn against over-using such notifications, citing a need to maintain public trust. But high-profile examples of alerts not being used — during the Northern California wildfires in October, for example — illustrate the ongoing discussion being had within emergency management.
Officials in Hawaii and across the nation Saturday addressed flaws in the system after the false alert created public alarm, spurring questions about what to do if the emergency had been real.
“We are balancing informing the public as soon as possible,” Ige told reporters after Saturday’s incident. “We definitely need to improve our procedures to ensure that when we find that it is in error, that we will be able to issue that as quickly as we informed the public.”
Preventing accidental alerts
The Emergency Alert System and the Wireless Emergency Alerts are part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, the country’s overarching alert infrastructure.
Authorities transmit messages to phones that are using the towers in a designated alert zone, according to the FCC. Depending on the region and how connected residents are to cellphone networks, that could result in widespread, wide-radius messaging.
Arizona’s emergency alert system has a builtin safeguard that can prevent accidental alerts, said Judy Kioski, a public information officer with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. Though not every state or agency uses the same platform, emergency managers are constantly adjusting protocols after events — Saturday’s not excluded.
“I think we’re always looking at lessons learned no matter what the event is” she said. “There’s always more to learn.”
Hawaii re-introduced a Cold War-era warning siren during tests late last year, the results of which showed some of the 386 sirens were not functioning properly.