Saturday’s false missile alert in Hawaii is fueling doubts about the Emergency Alert System’s ability to keep Americans informed in an actual emergency. “False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement on Sunday. An FCC investigation into the mishap is now underway.
The false alert was broadcast to the homes and cellphones of residents of Hawaii using the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alerts systems. The message warned of a “ballistic missile threat” and urged recipients to “seek immediate shelter.” It carried the frightening warning, “This is not a drill.”
The activation was also distributed by radio and television stations across the state’s eight main islands. The blunder has been blamed on human error a during a shift change at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. A worker mistakenly hit the live alert button while performing a routine test, according to the state.
Making matters worse, a correction wasn’t sent for 38 minutes. “False Alarm. There is no missile threat to Hawaii,” was the message radio and TV stations were given to share with listeners and viewers. But in the nearly 40 minutes before that was sent, an Armageddon-like panic had erupted among residents and tourists. Some huddled in bathtubs while others abandoned cars on a highway to shelter in a tunnel, while some simply said prayers and waited. On the island of Oahu the 9-1-1 call center was flooded with more than 5,000 calls overwhelming operators.
“I know first-hand how today’s false alarm affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused. I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can do to immediately improve our emergency management systems, procedures and staffing,” Governor David Ige said. His office said it expects to release a preliminary report of its findings and what corrective actions will be taken by week’s end.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said, like the FCC, it too has started a review to determine why it took so long to tell the public that the EAS message was sent in error. “We understand that false alarms such as this can erode public confidence in our emergency notification systems,” it said in a statement, adding, “We understand the serious nature of the warning alert systems and the need to get this right 100% of the time.”
Pai called the false alert and its delayed correction “absolutely unacceptable.” The FCC’s investigation into the incident is “well underway,” Pai said, adding that the agency has been in close contact with federal and state officials, gathering facts about how the bogus alert was issued. “Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert,” Pai said. “Moving forward, we will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again.”
Pai urged federal, state, and local officials to work together to “identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them.” He also stressed the imperative to issue corrections immediately if and when a false alert does go out.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) said he has already been in contact with Pai and said he’s glad the FCC is working with Hawaii to develop best practices for states and other local emergency management officials to ensure something like what happened over the weekend isn’t repeated. “This system failed miserably,” Schatz said. “We need to improve it, and get it right.”
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly called the false activation “deeply disturbing” and said the “excuses” being provided by Hawaiian officials “are not believable.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed the FCC needs to get to the bottom of what happened. “Emergency alerts are meant to keep us and our families safe—not to create false panic,” she said.