Hawaii's false missile alert sent by a worker who thought an attack was imminent, FCC says

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi listens during a hearing in Honolulu, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. Lawmakers want to learn the circumstances of an emergency alert mistakenly sent over the weekend that warned island residents and visitors of a ballistic missile attack. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher).

Washington • The Hawaii employee who sent out a false alarm earlier this month warning of an incoming missile attack said he misheard a message played during a drill and believed a ballistic missile was actually heading for the state, according to a federal investigation.

This contradicts the explanations previously offered by Hawaii officials, who have said the Jan. 13 alert was sent because the employee hit the wrong button on a drop-down menu.

The cellphone alert sent to Hawaii residents set off a wave of panic across the state, coming as heightened tension with North Korea has fueled fears of nuclear attacks on the United States. To make matters worse, the alarming message blaring “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” went uncorrected for an agonizing 38 minutes.

Authorities were apologetic after what Gov. David Ige, D, called “a terrifying day when our worst nightmares appeared to become a reality.” Ige and other officials plan to speak later Tuesday about the findings of an internal state investigation of the incident.

The Federal Communications Commission said in a preliminary report released Tuesday that the state employee who sent out the alert “claimed to believe … that this was a real emergency, not a drill.” Wireless emergency alerts warning of danger are typically sent out by state and local officials through a partnership among the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the wireless industry.

The incident began when a night-shift supervisor decided to test incoming day-shift workers with a spontaneous drill, the FCC report stated. The supervisor managing the day-shift workers appeared to be aware of the upcoming test but believed it was aimed at the outgoing night-shift workers. As a result, the day-shift manager was not prepared to supervise the morning test, the FCC said.

Following standard procedures, the night-shift supervisor posing as U.S. Pacific Command played a recorded message to the emergency workers warning them of the fake threat. The message included the phrase “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” the FCC report said, but it also included “This is not a drill” — language used for real missile alerts.

The worker who then sent the emergency alert said they did not hear the “exercise” part of the message. This person, who has not been publicly identified, declined to be interviewed by investigators, but did provide a written statement, the FCC said.

According to the FCC report released Tuesday, this worker is the only one who apparently did not understand it was a drill.

To address what happened, Hawaii emergency management officials will require additional approvals before alerts and tests are transmitted. The state has suspended emergency alert drills and plans to provide more warning before drills. Officials in Hawaii also said that, going forward, a second person will be needed to confirm sending out alerts.

The false alert on Jan. 13 was not checked by the Hawaii emergency management agency’s computer systems because there is little difference between the user interface for submitting test alerts and the one for sending actual alerts.

“Hawaii’s alert software allows users to send live alerts and test alerts using the same interface,” said James Wiley, an attorney adviser at the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. To send an alert, emergency management employees select a pre-written message from a drop-down menu on a computer. They then must click “yes” when the system asks “Are you sure that you want to send this Alert?”

Wiley said the confirmation prompts that employees see before the alerts are transmitted contain “the same language irrespective of whether the message [is] a test or actual alert.”

When the alert hit cellphones across Hawaii, people began frantically trying to determine how long they might have to reach safety. Some sought shelter in their homes, while others described “mass hysteria” on the roads.

The alert came at an uneasy moment for many in the western United States. The mounting tensions with North Korea, exacerbated by the pointed war of words exchanged between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, have stirred unease about a potential attack on U.S. soil.

Hawaii, given its location in the Pacific Ocean, stands as a possible target of a North Korean attack. In a remarkable sign of concern, Hawaii last year brought back its statewide Cold War-style siren to warn of a potential nuclear assault.

The FCC report also highlights the disconnect between the Hawaiian government and U.S. Pacific Command in the drill. While the night-shift supervisor posed as the U.S. military’s regional command headquarters in the drill, U.S. military officials from both Pacific Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which tracks potential threats in U.S. airspace, have said that when they received reports about the false missile alert, they quickly scanned for threats, found none and checked in with the Hawaiian government for an explanation.

Army Lt. Col. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for Pacific Command, told the Washington Post the day of the incident that even after the military confirmed there was no incoming fire, it did not immediately issue a message of its own because it did not want to confuse the issue even more without checking in first with Hawaiian state officials.

Pacific Command officials could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Officials in Hawaii have also drawn criticism for how long it took them to correct the alert and reassure the public. Ige has said it took him as long as it did to weigh in because he had forgotten his Twitter password.

Three minutes after the message was sent, the day-shift supervisor received the false cellphone alert, and the process of responding to the mistake began. The state emergency management agency notified Ige of the problem. Seven minutes after the alert was sent, officials stopped broadcasting the alert. But because there was no plan for how to handle a false alert, the agency could not issue an official correction.

It was not until 26 minutes into the crisis that officials settled on a proper way to inform the public about the all-clear, and workers began drafting a correction. It took another 14 minutes after that for the correction to be distributed.

The lack of a contingency plan reflected a critical failure on the part of Hawaii’s emergency management agency, said Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC.

“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” Pai said Tuesday. “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.”

In a separate action Tuesday, the FCC voted to approve new requirements designed to enhance the geo-targeting of cellphone alerts. This move is aimed at making the distribution of alerts more accurate so that those outside an emergency area will not receive warnings that do not affect them. The FCC will also require cellphone carriers to allow consumers to review any alert for up to 24 hours after they receive them. Carriers will have until November 2019 to implement the changes.

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