‘Noth­ing I could do’

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Reach the re­porter at 602-444-8515, jpohl@az cen­tral.com or on Twit­ter: @pohl_­ja­son. Ja­son Pohl

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.

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