At 8:07 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13, Hawaiians received an alert from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency stating, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” This alert, which came as tension between North Korea and the United States increases to the point that former Secretary of Defense William Perry believes we are closer to nuclear catastrophe than we were during the Cold War, was actually an error. In a routine alert system test, a staffer pressed “live alert” instead of “test alert.” HEMA immediately tweeted that it was a false alarm and, 36 minutes later, sent a second message, announcing that the alert was an error, although by then most Hawaiians were alarmed and helping others seek shelter.
The second announcement took so long to get out because FEMA had to verify that there was no threat and approve the announcement first. Hawaii Governor David Ige said, “We’ve already implemented some actions to speed up the process so the public would be notified faster.” The false alert is provoking other improvements in the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which hopes to improve by learning from other agencies and departments. Additionally, FEMA and the FCC launched a full investigation into the error. The staffer who sent the alert has since been re-assigned.
The false alert also led to re-evaluating the operation of IPAWS in general. All 50 states use the system, but only some municipalities. According to Retired Admiral David Simpson, Former Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, this leads to some emergency centers having “nowhere near the professionalism there on the national security side of things.” Also, unlike the Department of Defense’s alert system, there is no firewall between the test mode and live mode of the system, partially because IPAWS can’t afford employees fumbling with messages in a true emergency.