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Former Union Leader correspondent says false Hawaii missile warning was 'terrifying'

Staff and Wire Report
January 14. 2018 8:44PM
A combination photograph shows screenshots from a cell phone displaying an alert for a ballistic missile launch and the subsequent false alarm message in Hawaii on Saturday. (REUTERS/Hugh Gentry)

HONOLULU — Human error and a lack of adequate fail-safe measures during a civil defense warning drill led to the false missile alert that stirred panic across Hawaii over the weekend, a state emergency management agency spokesman acknowledged on Sunday.

Elaborating on the origins of Saturday’s false alarm, which went uncorrected for nearly 40 minutes, spokesman Richard Rapoza said the employee who mistakenly sent the missile alert “has been temporarily reassigned” to other duties.

Rapoza said an internal investigation of the blunder would be completed by week’s end and that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency welcomed outside review by the Federal Communications Commission, which has jurisdiction over wireless U.S. alert systems.

Rapoza also said that no further drills of the emergency alert system would be conducted until new measures were put in place to reduce the chance of future false alarms and to swiftly withdraw any warnings sent in error.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said on Sunday that the agency’s probe of the incident so far suggested “reasonable safeguards or process controls” were lacking, a point that Rapoza said officials at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency did not dispute.

The error occurred when, in the midst of a drill during a shift change at the agency, an employee made the wrong selection from a “drop-down” computer menu, choosing to activate a missile launch warning instead of the option for generating an internal test alert, Rapoza said.

The employee, believing the correct selection had been made, then went ahead and clicked “yes” when the system’s computer prompt asked whether to proceed, Rapoza said.

Governor David Ige initially said on Saturday that “an employee pushed the wrong button.”

The resulting message, issued amid heightened international strains over North Korea’s development of ballistic nuclear weapons, stated: “EMERGENCY ALERT BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It was transmitted to mobile phones and broadcast on television and radio across the Pacific island state shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday, and took 38 minutes to be retracted by an official all-clear message.

The mistake unleashed hysteria and confusion across the state, home to some 1.4 million people and a heavy concentration of U.S. military command structure.

Civil defense officials have said that in the event of a real missile attack from North Korea, people in Hawaii would have only about 12 minutes to find shelter.

‘It was terrifying’

Former Union Leader Correspondent Clynton Namuo was in Waikiki, Hawaii, visiting family when he woke up to the message on his phone.

“It was terrifying,” said Namuo. “Having lived in Hawaii, alerts are common for weather-related emergencies or natural disasters. But seeing the words ‘ballistic missile threat inbound’ ... it was terrifying.”

“I didn’t know whether to believe it,” said Namuo. “I started searching social media, but this was happening in real time, so of course there wasn’t anything online yet. But then a message started scrolling on television warning a missile could be incoming in minutes, and you start thinking this is really happening.”

Namuo realized he wasn’t sure exactly what to do if a missile was inbound. 

“I started wondering if the hotel I am in has a bomb shelter, because some of them do, holdovers from World War II,” said Namuo. “It’s not like anyone practices ducking under desks for an incoming missile. This isn’t the Cold War anymore.”

It took him about 20 minutes to realize the warning was a false alarm.

“I was in a hallway when I heard a teenager yell a member of Congress had tweeted it was a hoax,” said Namuo. “I checked that out, and it turned out to be true. Then emergency management tweeted the message was sent in error. That’s when I realized it wasn’t real, and we should probably get some breakfast.”

He added: “Now we’re all wondering how did this happen? When the first message went out, it went out over the emergency alert system, reaching everyone with a cell phone on the island. When they sent out word that it was a mistake, they did so at first using only social media — reaching far fewer people. Why?”

’Not making any excuses’

In November, Hawaii said it would resume monthly statewide testing of Cold War-era nuclear attack warning sirens for the first time in at least a quarter of a century, in preparation for a possible missile strike from North Korea.

Ige, who said he was “angry and disappointed” by Saturday’s incident, said some sirens went off after the false alarm.

To prevent a repeat, the Emergency Management Agency will now require two employees to activate the alert system — one to issue the warning and another to confirm it. The agency also has incorporated a way of issuing an immediate false-alarm notice in the event of an error.

“That’s something we were lacking yesterday,” Rapoza told Reuters by telephone. “Our focus was on getting the message out quickly, and not enough attention was paid to what happens if there’s a mistake. And frankly, that was a failure of planning on our part. We’re not making any excuses for it.”

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on Sunday during a visit to Florida and gave Hawaii state officials credit for admitting their mistake, saying: “I loved that they took responsibility.”

He added: “But we’re going to get involved,” an apparent reference to the FCC’s review of the incident.

Trump, whose public war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including a tweet boasting that he had a “much bigger” nuclear button than Kim, has widely been seen as stoking tensions, added: “But maybe eventually we’ll solve the problem” so people in Hawaii “don’t have to be so on edge.”

Criticism of the state emergency management agency from other quarters was swift.

Lee Cataluna, a columnist for the state’s largest newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, wrote in an opinion piece published on Sunday: “It’s the time for outrage. Somebody needs to get fired.”

Reuters and Union Leader Staff Writer Paul Feely contributed to this report.

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