A false emergency alert warning is sent out of an impending missile strike in Hawaii causing widespread panic in the state.
On Saturday morning, January 13, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert was issued via the Emergency Alert System and Commercial Mobile Alert System over television, radio, and cellphones in the U.S. state of Hawaii. The alert stated that there was an incoming ballistic missile threat to Hawaii, advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded “This is not a drill”. The message was sent at 8:07 a.m. local time. However, no civil defense outdoor warning sirens were authorized or sounded by the state.
A second message, sent 38 minutes later, described the first as a “false alarm”. State officials blamed a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for the first message. Governor David Ige publicly apologized for the erroneous alert, which caused panic and disruption throughout the state. The Federal Communications Commission and the Hawaii House of Representatives launched investigations into the incident, leading to the resignation of the state’s emergency management administrator.
Escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, including threats by both countries that they could use nuclear weapons against one another, prompted a heightened state of readiness in Hawaii. North Korea had conducted several intercontinental ballistic missile tests over the past year, most recently in November 2017, enhancing its strike capabilities. It is possible that North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear missiles to Hawaii. Hawaii is located roughly 4,600 miles from North Korea, and a missile launched from North Korea would leave perhaps 12 to 15 minutes of warning time.
Hawaii officials had been working for some time to refresh the state’s emergency plans in case of a nuclear attack from North Korea. An October 2017 email from the University of Hawaii to students with the subject line “In the event of a nuclear attack”, containing instructions from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on how to react in case of a nuclear attack, caused controversy; a university spokesman ultimately apologized for “any needless concern it may have caused”. Testing of the civil defense warning sirens and attack drills were also conducted in the state on the first business day of the month beginning in December 2017. On December 1, 2017, a nuclear threat siren was tested in Hawaii for the first time in more than 30 years, the first of what state officials said would be monthly drills. At 11:45 a.m. on January 2, 2018, the state conducted its monthly test of the civil defense outdoor warning siren system including the sounding of a one-minute Attention Alert Signal followed by a one-minute Attack Warning Signal. There was no exercise or drill accompanying the test. Prior to January 13, 2018, 26 drills had been conducted. Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, explained that state leaders “couldn’t ignore these constant threats and missile tests from North Korea” and felt the need to prepare residents for the possibility of an attack. Officials also outlined what would happen if an emergency alert were sent: a push alert to smartphones and a message interrupting television and radio broadcasts. The J-Alert used in Japan to warn of tsunamis, etc., also uses the push message notifications.
Earlier in January 2018, U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said the commission planned to vote to overhaul the wireless emergency alert system. The proposed reforms include providing more detailed information in alerts and confining emergency notifications to a more specific geographic area. Pai said he hoped the reforms, which would take effect in late 2019 if approved by the FCC, would lead to greater use of the alert system in local emergency situations and prompt people to take alerts they receive more seriously.
The alert was sent at 8:07 a.m. Hawaii–Aleutian Standard Time. People in Hawaii reported seeing the alert on their smartphones. Many screenshots of the push alert were shared on social media platforms, such as Twitter. The alert read, in all capital letters:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Local television broadcasts, including a college basketball game between Florida and Ole Miss being shown on CBS affiliate KGMB and a Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton on NBC affiliate KHNL, were also interrupted by a similar alert message, broadcast as a Civil Danger Warning. The alert message on television broadcasts took the form of both an audio message and a scrolling banner. It stated in part:
The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor. We will announce when the threat has ended. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Take immediate action measures.
An alert message also interrupted radio broadcasts in the state. In Lihue, a resident reported hearing a message on the radio advising of “an incoming missile warning for the islands of Kauai and Hawaii”.
Culpability for the false alert was attributed to an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, who officials said was a 10-year agency veteran who had previously exhibited behavior that had troubled coworkers, according to The Washington Post. Vern Miyagi, then-administrator of HI-EMA, said the alert had been inadvertently triggered by the employee as he was working at the Diamond Head Crater headquarters during a shift change. During the shift change, a supervisor ran an unscheduled drill in which he contacted emergency management workers in the guise of an officer from U.S. Pacific Command, according to state officials. The supervisor deviated from the script, officials said, erroneously stating at one point, “This is not a drill,” although he reportedly did state before and after the message, “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” agency code to indicate a test rather than an actual emergency.
Officials said that upon hearing the supervisor’s statement, the employee, who had a reported history of having “confused real life events and drills” at least twice before and later attested in a written statement that he believed there was an actual emergency, clicked the button to send out an actual notification on Hawaii’s emergency alert interface during what was intended to be a test of the state’s ballistic missile preparations computer program and then clicked through a second screen, which had been intended as a safeguard, to confirm. An agency spokesman told The Washington Post that the employee, prompted to choose between the options “test missile alert” and “missile alert”, had selected the latter, initiating the alert sent out across the state. The employee later claimed to the Associated Press that he had not heard the “exercise” part of the phone call because a co-worker had placed it on speakerphone partway into the message, and as a result, he had been “100 percent sure” the attack was real. State officials said five other workers were present at the agency at the time and all of them recognized the phone call as an impromptu drill.
By 8:10 a.m. HST, officials later said, Hawaii National Guard Adjutant General Arthur “Joe” Logan had contacted U.S. Pacific Command and confirmed there had been no missile launch. At that time, the Honolulu Police Department was notified that the alert had been a false alarm. Officials used the State Warning Point system at 8:13 a.m. to cancel the alert, preventing it from being sent out to any phones that had not already received it, such as those that were switched off or did not have reception. The employee who originally sent out the erroneous notification did not respond when directed to cancel the alert, according to state officials. He later said he felt like he had been dealt a “body blow” upon realizing the supposed attack had been a drill, the Associated Press reported. Another unidentified worker grabbed the employee’s computer mouse and cancelled the alert when the first employee failed to respond.
Official messages refuting the emergency alert were not sent out until 8:20 a.m., according to the timeline released by officials after the incident. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accounts on Facebook and Twitter posted messages at that time urging people to disregard the erroneous alert. Minutes later, Governor David Ige retweeted the HI-EMA message on Twitter and posted a similar message on Facebook to notify followers that the alert had been canceled. Ige later said the delay was caused in part by the fact he did not know his Twitter login information. An email from the state was also sent at about 8:25 a.m. advising that the initial alert was not correct, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Electronic highway signs were also used to spread the word that the alert had been issued “in error” and that there was no threat to Hawaii.
At 8:45 a.m. HST, 38 minutes after the initial alert was sent to smartphones in Hawaii, a second emergency alert was sent, which stated:
There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.
The second alert was sent “well after everyone from Hawaii’s congressional delegation to the U.S. Pacific Command had assured the world on Twitter that it was a false alarm”, Pacific Business News remarked.
Governor David Ige explained at a news conference that afternoon that officials “had to initiate a manual process” and obtain authorization from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to send the second alert, because there was no automated way to countermand the first alert. Those procedures accounted for the delay more than 30 minutes after officials had confirmed internally that the alert was inaccurate, according to officials.
During the 38 minutes between the first and second alerts, Hawaii’s siren warning system — which had been tested as part of a missile preparedness exercise the previous month for the first time since the Cold War — was not formally activated. Had a missile truly been launched, the Hawaii push alert should have been followed up with another set of alarms with sirens, which did not happen, as observed by some residents. Nevertheless, officials stated that some sirens did appear to go off in some communities, with some residents reporting sirens activated on Oahu a few minutes after the push notification. Little to no activity was reported at military bases in the state. Some commercial flights were reportedly delayed for a short time, although the Hawaii Department of Transportation said there were no widespread impacts at the state’s airports and harbors.
Disruptions were reported across the state. Honolulu Civil Beat reported that motorists parked inside the Interstate H-3 tunnel on the island of Oahu for shelter. Hawaii News Now reported that alarms sounded at Aloha Gymfest, an international gymnastics meet in Kailua, sending hundreds of people running for cover. Students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa reportedly headed for marked fallout shelters on campus but, finding them locked, ended up taking shelter in nearby classrooms instead. Officials at the Sony Open PGA Tour golf tournament on Oahu ordered an evacuation of the media center, while staff members sought cover in the kitchen and players’ locker room. Tourists at Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe were reportedly taken up to a concrete bunker in the mountains by staff and told to shelter in place there. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa later said her husband had been driving on a Honolulu-area freeway and saw cars speeding at up to 100 miles per hour after the alert was sent out. Many Hawaii residents and visitors sought shelter or rushed through emergency preparations where they were. Some discounted the alarm when they realized that they heard no sirens, and that they personally saw no immediate coverage on television or local radio. Others were in areas where sirens did go off; in addition, some television stations did broadcast the alert.
The incident also created a strain on Hawaii’s telephone system. Civil Defense offices in Hawaii were inundated with calls from frightened residents asking for advice or more information, the New Zealand Herald reported. Many calls to 9-1-1 would not go through. Many wireless data services were likewise initially jammed, leaving many unable to access the Internet to confirm whether the alarm was real. Some residents called friends or family members to say goodbye.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reported that the false alert did not appear to have prompted any sort of reaction from the North Korean government.
State officials held a news conference in the afternoon of January 13 to address the incident. State officials placed former Hawaii Army National Guard commander Bruce E. Oliveira in charge of internally investigating the events that resulted in the false alert being sent out. In his report, published January 30, Oliveira faulted “insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors” for the incident.
Officials did not name the employee responsible for the error. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency head Vern Miyagi initially declined to say whether the employee, who he said felt “terrible” about the false alert, would face discipline. An agency spokesman said January 14 the employee had been “temporarily reassigned” to a position that did not allow him access to the emergency warning system, pending the result of the internal investigation. The employee was ultimately fired on January 26, following findings in Oliveira’s investigation regarding his work history and failure to follow directions. A second employee, who was also not identified and whose role in the incident was not disclosed, was suspended without pay. Toby Clairmont, HI-EMA’s executive officer, announced January 20 he planned to retire by the end of the year.
The Federal Communications Commission also announced that it would conduct a full investigation into the incident. On January 25, an FCC official announced that the former employee responsible for sending the false report was refusing to cooperate with the FCC probe of the incident. The FCC report, released January 30, faulted the state for failing to quickly notify the public and not having safeguards in place sufficient to prevent the error. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated:
Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes. Each should make sure they have adequate safeguards in place. … The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an alert it is indeed a credible alert.
Miyagi resigned as HI-EMA administrator the same day the state and federal reports were released. Clairmont announced his resignation a day later.
Other official actions
Then-administrator Vern Miyagi said the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency suspended tests while assessing what had happened following the incident. He also announced the agency immediately changed its procedures to require two people, instead of just one, to send out both test alerts and actual alerts. HI-EMA employees will be “counseled and drilled so this never happens again”, Miyagi said January 14.
Governor David Ige announced January 15 that he was appointing Brigadier General Kenneth Hara, Hawaii’s deputy adjutant general, to oversee a review of the state’s emergency management systems and procedures and implement reforms. The agency also moved quickly to implement a cancellation command that officials said can be triggered within seconds of an erroneous alert being sent out, which it reportedly lacked before the January 13 incident. The Hawaii emergency alert interface screen was updated with a BMD False Alarm selection the same day, addressing a system deficiency that made it difficult for the state to countermand an alert sent in error.
HI-EMA reported that some of its employees received death threats after the false alert incident. In a rare public address, Ige called the threats “completely unacceptable” and said he was “ultimately responsible” for the error.
Although Governor Ige’s office issued on February 27, 2018, a Siren and Emergency Alert System Test for March 1, 2018, the state of Hawaii did not test the nuclear warning siren in March and dropped its monthly test of the nuclear warning siren beginning on March 1, 2018.
In July 2018, the FCC issued a report and order which makes changes to EAS regulations to “improve the integrity, efficacy, and reliability” of the system and “minimize the potential for false alerts.” The changes require EAS participants to configure their hardware to “reject Common Alerting Protocol-based alerts that contain an invalid digital signature and legacy based alerts whose expiration time falls outside of specific time limits”, and report any false alarms to the FCC. The commission also implemented procedures for authorizing voluntarily participation in “live code” tests—public exercises that simulate an actual emergency in order to “promote greater proficiency” in the system by EAS operators and participants. These changes were the result of recommendations from the FCC’s report on the Hawaii incident.
At 8:18 a.m. HST on October 3, 2018, the first national Wireless Emergency Alert test, also known as the Presidential Alert text system, was broadcast by FEMA in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission through cell phone towers to wireless devices. The subject read, “Presidential Alert” and the text message sent read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” Since the WEA test was issued on behalf of the President, no one could opt out. The 8:18 a.m. HST WEA test lasted for 30 minutes and was followed at 8:20 a.m. HST with the fourth nationwide Emergency Alert System test which lasted about a minute and involved radio and television broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio and television providers, and wireline video providers. These two tests were scheduled for September 20, 2018, but the occurrence of Hurricane Florence caused the two tests to be postponed. Although FEMA called this a national test of Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, neither the National Weather Service nor the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radios participated in the tests.