Emergency Management Nightmare:
Hawaii’s False Alert Crisis
by Shelomo Alfassa
January 13, 2018
On the morning of January 12, 2018, the 1.4 million residents of the State of Hawaii were shaken when cell phones on the island alerted with: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” A few seconds later a flash came across their television screens “…TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION MEASURES…THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Over the AM/FM radio came the automated spoken message: “A MISSLE MAY IMPACT ON LAND OR SEA WITHIN MINUTES…IF YOU ARE DRIVING, PULL SAFELY TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD AND SEEK SHELTER IN A BUILDING OR LIE ON THE FLOOR, THIS IS NOT A DRILL…”
Hawaii’s emergency management / homeland security public notification system is tripartite; it consists of over 500 massive outdoor sirens, text messages to cell phones and other wireless devices, and television warnings which are sent to terrestrial broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services. This time, two of the three parts of the public notification system activated. The frightening text alert (SMS) was sent out by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), via the FEMA Emergency Alert System (EAS), which is designed to allow the State to warn Americans within 10 minutes of authorities learning of a threat to national security or other significant emergency. While the Emergency Alert System in Hawaii is tied into a Cold War era air raid siren system, on this morning, the audible sirens never sounded.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII”
At the same time, as people in Hawaii watched the Ole Miss vs. Florida basketball game on TV, an ominous crawling red banner popped on the screen: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII” put an startling fear into them. People panicked, they didn’t know what to do. Some ran to their cars and sped off; there were traffic collisions as some drove through red lights and ignored traffic laws. People ran and woke others up—yet not knowing what action to take. On social media, some advised people in Hawaii should get in their bathtubs, others said they should seek ground level for shelter. Streets were filled with people running for cover, universities had students running and crying, as they ran for their lives across campus, trying to get into buildings. People horded medications and water into backpacks and ran into basements and garages. Others just sat down in the streets as if they capitulated to the menacing news and what they thought was about to occur. The public was seriously in fear.
Such a public terror was not seen in Hawaii since 1941, when an incoming air attack would become the onset of America’s entry into WWII. Today’s incoming missile panic played out on social media: “I’m still shaking. My husband ran around closing windows (against radiation); I filled water containers and texted goodbye and ‘I love you all’ to my family.” Another person wrote, “My sister in Hawaii texted me a picture of her and her kids huddled in a closet during their false alarm nuclear strike this morning…” Hawaii State Rep. Matt LoPresti told the media, that he took the warning “as serious as a heart attack” and got in the bathtub with his children, where they said “their prayers.”
Nearly 40 minutes after the attack warnings, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency confirmed that there was “no ballistic missile and that there were no computer hacks to the HI-EMA system, but it wasn't until a man went into cardiac arrest, and 911 received over 5000 calls from frantic citizens.
Ultimately, the cause of the false alarm was human error.” This is how the incident unfolded:
0805: A routine internal test during a shift change was initiated. This was a test that would involve the Emergency Alert System (on TV & radio), the Wireless Emergency Alert (via cell phones), but no warning sirens.
0807: A warning test was triggered statewide by the State Warning Point, HI-EMA.
0810: US Army Major General Joe Logan, the Adjutant General of the Hawaii National Guard, who is in charge of contingency plans in support of Homeland Security operations for the State of Hawaii—validated with the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) that there was no missile launch.
0813: The State Warning Point issued a vital cancellation that prevented the initial alert from being rebroadcast to phones that may not have received it yet. For instance, if a phone was on Airplane Mode or was turned off at 0807 when the initial alert message was dispatched.
0820: HI-EMA issues public notification of cancellation via social media.
0845: After getting authorization from FEMA, HI-EMA issued a “Civil Emergency Message” remotely over local radio and over the TV crawler banner: “False Alarm. There is no missile threat to Hawaii.” They also sent a message out through SMS, via the Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA): “False Alarm. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii.” A “Civil Emergency Message” (CEM) is a warning issued through FEMA’s Emergency Alert System (EAS) to warn the public of a significant threat to public safety. Such messages are generally issued by a state authority, and are deployed by the National Weather Service. A CEM is a higher priority warning message than a Local Area Emergency (LAE), but it's less specific than a Civil Danger Warning (CDW). These alerts are defined in 47 CFR Ch.1 and Presidential Executive Order 13407 (2006) establishes that it “is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being….”
0930: The Governor makes initial media notification.
The accidental alert of an incoming ICBM panicked over a million Americans on the islands and worried domestic and worldwide audiences over national and international news. The public remained in terrific fear for near 40 minutes. The crawling red TV alert banner stated “USPACOM has detected a missile threat to Hawaii,” yet USPACOM (US Pacific Command) never detected a missile threat to Hawaii nor did USPACOM ever issue that statement. During the panic, people went into underground parking areas, seeking shelter, only to find their cell phones did not work down there. This is not the first time a Civil Danger Warning message was broadcast via human error. Just six months earlier, radio stations in Guam issued broadcasts which sparked fears of nuclear missiles being launched at that American island.
While seemingly the legal framework for how to alert the public is suitably outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. It seems the operational side of the actual deployment of an emergency message should be reevaluated. Currently, a State asks FEMA for utilization of the EAS system, then once approved, the National Weather Service uses its communication infrastructure to deploy the message. Known as the NOAA Weather Wire Service (NWWS), the service exists to disseminate weather information, and other emergency alerts to the public. The latter is not an added job of the NWWS, but the system itself was designed to meet this mission as the national disseminator of emergency messages of all types.
Having pre-canned messages on the shelf for various potential incidents is a common accepted approach for a public affairs unit, but having a message such as what the false warning “quoted” from the US Pacific Command, may need to be reevaluated. It’s understandable how Hawaii has been on edge lately due to talk of ICBM’s being able to reach their state, but pre-loading potentially alarming messages into the human-controlled emergency broadcast system is like playing with a loaded gun.
The state’s emergency management and homeland security officials should consider a password or other verbal command that can immediately put a cancelation into place that can be immediacy triggered in the event of another accidental incident. While many offices of emergency management generally only keep one person on the overnight shift as a watch commander / watch stander at a jurisdictional warning point, Hawaii, and other states, should consider a two-person authorization system for not only tests, but real-world emergency notifications. They need a two-person system because this can serve as a verification of an actual incident, and mitigate against a repeat false alert. Finally, there is a need for Hawaii to prepare a section in their State Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, their 1000 page state emergency plan—which currently has zero information on how to deal with incoming missiles or nuclear emergencies.
If nothing else, this incident has awoken civilians to the idea that an attack may be plausible, and that they should have some sort of family disaster plan. However, this human-caused incident has without doubt, tarnished many who previously would have trusted their local / state emergency authorities. It will take a reinvigorated plan of reengagement, so trust can once again be built up and the propensity of the citizenry will again trust the government.
This false alert had the potential for local, state-wide and even national negative consequences. Fortunately, the news that this was indeed a non-emergency was put into place as quickly as possible—although not soon enough. Confidently, overall the emergency management and homeland security community will see this as an exercise in mitigation against future false-alerts, and from this, America’s early warning systems will be strengthened.
Shelomo Alfassa is an emergency and critical incident management planner for Virsig, LLC. in NYC. He is former Deputy Commander of a FEMA emergency response team for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Shelomo has worked in public safety and emergency management for 27 years. He has a BA in Homeland Security and is working towards his MPA concentrating in Emergency Management.
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APA Citation: Alfassa, S. (2018, January 13). Emergency management nightmare: Hawaii’s false alert crisis. New York, NY: Contemporary
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