‘Inexcusable’ false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii was caused by human error

Hawaiian residents were briefly but intensely disturbed this morning by a state-wide alert via TV and phone warning of an incoming ballistic missile. It was, however, shortly afterwards confirmed to be a mistake caused by “human error.” Hawaiian Senator Brian Schatz called the false alarm “inexcusable” and said to expect “tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”

The alert went out at a little after 8 AM Hawaiian time, appearing on phones as an emergency services popup and broadcast on TV as a detailed warning of how to seek shelter. “This is not a drill,” it concluded.

Authorities quickly issued followups to calm the no doubt panicking populace, but I imagine it’s hard to do that properly when you’ve just told everyone in the state to seek shelter and lie on the floor.

Given the current state of international relations, particularly with North Korea, it’s hard to imagine how a simple human error could have resulted in such a major alert.

In a statement issued a few hours later, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency explained in a bit more detail what happened:

Approx. 8:05 a.m. – A routine internal test during a shift change was initiated. This was a test that involved the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alert, but no warning sirens.

8:07 a.m. – A warning test was triggered statewide by the State Warning Point, HI-EMA.

The local military representative checked with USPACOM that no launch had actually happened by 8:10, and at 8:13 the alert was cancelled. Social media and other online explanations appeared starting a few minutes after that, and official messages saying “There is no missile threat to Hawaii” were spread via the broadcast system at 8:45

So what exactly happened? It still isn’t completely clear, but it sounds like a test of the system that was meant to stay internal ended up getting out.

In order to prevent this from happening again, HI-EMA is taking three measures, as explained in the statement:

  • On the recommendations of the HI-EMA Administrator, Vern Miyagi, the Governor has suspended all future drills until HI-EMA has completed a full analysis of the event.
  • HI-EMA has already instituted a two-person activation/verification rule for tests as well as actual missile launch notifications.
  • A cancellation command that can be done automatically that can be triggered within seconds of an error, has been put in place.

This of course makes it clear that a single person could activate the tests and real warnings, which seems risky, and that once initiated it was not easy to cancel them (perhaps by design). Put these together and there’s certainly a large risk of mistake or misuse. HI-EMA is also evaluating the possibility of “expanding notification processes” for officials for situations like this.

A full report will be made next week. In the mean time it may be wise for other states to check whether their systems are similarly at risk for a false alarm.