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United States

Hawaii’s false missile alert was sent by worker who actually thought attack was inbound

The worker said he misheard a North Korea drill and thought a missile had actually been launched at the US state

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 6:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 8:29am

The Hawaii employee who sent out a false alarm warning of an incoming missile attack earlier this month 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 January 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 fuelled 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 agonising 38 minutes.

Hawaii governor didn’t correct false missile alert because he didn’t know his Twitter password

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

The Federal Communications Commission said in a preliminary report released 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 between 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.

Incoming missile attack alert that spread panic in Hawaii initally blamed on ‘wrong button’

Following standard procedures, the night-shift supervisor posing as US 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 the worker did provide a written statement, the FCC said.

According to the FCC report released on 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 January 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, a lawyer 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 US 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 US Pacific Command in the drill. 

The night-shift supervisor posed as the US military’s regional command headquarters in the drill.

But US military officials from both Pacific Command and the North American Aerospace Defence Command, which tracks potential threats in US 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 Lieutenant Colonel 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.

That is because it did not want to confuse the issue even more without checking in first with Hawaiian state officials, Cheng said.

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.