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Hawaii's 'ballistic missile' false alarm reveals technical and administrative flaws

Both the state's systems and processes are now under review.

Colin Wood
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Colin Wood Managing Editor

Colin Wood is the managing editor of StateScoop. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine. Before that, he taught Engl...

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Hawaii's recent false alert of a "ballistic missile threat" reveals administrative and technical shortcomings in the state's emergency alerting system, sources familiar with the technology told StateScoop.

An emergency alert of a "ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii" caused panic to many who received the notification for 38 minutes on Saturday before it was corrected as a test message sent by mistake. The Federal Communications Commission, which has jurisdiction over wireless alerts, released a statement on Sunday that the shortcomings that allowed the incident to occur will be remediated following an investigation.

The message sent read: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

Hawaii's nuclear warning siren system did not sound on Saturday.

The scare came less than two weeks after President Donald Trump bragged on Twitter that his nuclear button was "bigger & more powerful" than the one on the desk of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea fired more than 23 missiles during 16 tests in 2017, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that the country claims can reach "anywhere in the world."

“The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. "It caused a wave of panic across the state. … Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies."

Based on preliminary review, Pai said the false alert was able to be sent because the state did not have "reasonable safeguards or process controls in place."

Online, some of those who received the alert shared stories of tearful goodbyes with family and friends, while others reported that they had embraced the moment — one woman said she uncorked a bottle of vintage wine she had been saving, while another man said he texted his ex-wife to tell her that he still loved her, although she reportedly did not respond.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige said he was “angry and disappointed” about the false alarm and vowed to ensure it would not happen again. Ige said the false alert was sent during a routine shift change, at which time certain systems, like the emergency alerting system, are tested.

An image shared on Twitter by Honolulu Civic Beat shows that the staff member who made the mistake confused two similar links in a menu. The link to send an actual alert was labeled "PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY," while the test link was similarly labeled "DRILL - PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY."

That a false message was allowed to be sent indicates both administrative and technical failures, said Francisco Sanchez, deputy emergency management coordinator for Harris County, Texas.

"The vendor that they used could provide a multi-step process so it's not just one person authorized to hit the send button," Sanchez said. "And then the administrative process of requiring multiple chains of command [should also be involved]."

Sanchez said it would be adequate to have three or four people involved in the process, including someone from incident command, "before someone is even thinking about pressing a button."

The FCC has not stated when the details of its investigation will be revealed, but Sanchez said he expects that information to become available within the next 30 days.

"It would be a lost opportunity if we don't take all the lessons learned from it. It's a reminder that there are both technical and administrative solutions that would minimize the chance for this to happen again," Sanchez said.

Sanchez is a member of one of the groups that has spent the last year petitioning the FCC to upgrade the national Wireless Emergency Alert system. Groups like the National Emergency Management Association and the United States Conference of Mayors sent the FCC a letter earlier this month asking for better accuracy and new features like the ability to send photos along with text and multiple language support. Days later, the FCC released a proposal that would upgrade the system with more accurate alerting.

Although the Hawaii incident was a false alert, Sanchez said, the fact that the alert did not reach everyone it was intended to reach is further evidence that upgrades to the system are greatly needed.

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States, Hawaii, State & Local News, Public Safety, Emergency Management, Tech News, Cybersecurity, David Ige, wireless emergency alert, Ajit Pai, FCC

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