False Alarm Kick-Starts Improvements to Emergency Communications

On January 13, 2018, a false alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile went out to the cell phones, radios, and televisions of Hawaiian residents and visitors. The false alert read “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” It created mass panic and confusion for approximately thirty-eight minutes, until state officials issued a follow-up message cancelling the alert. People scrambled to find shelter, as the estimated period between issuance of a warning and impact of a ballistic missile would be at maximum 12-15 minutes.

As would be expected, this false alert triggered questions regarding management of disaster warning systems, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is already taking a lead toward improving. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement on the event, revealing that the FCC’s investigation of the incident is underway, and “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’s statement further indicated that future steps will focus on implementing procedures to prevent false alarms from occurring, as well as fixing vulnerabilities in communication and alert systems and ensuring immediate corrections in the event of false alarms.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) released a statement on January 13, 2018 about the incident, confirming that there was no ballistic missile threat, nor were there computer hacks of the HI-EMA system that caused the false alarm. Human error was to blame, and HI-EMA stated that they have already taken measures to avoid future unwarranted panic-inducing situations. Such measures include a review of cancellation procedures, suspension of all future drills until completion of a full analysis of the January 13, 2018 false alarm event, implementation of two-person verification for both system tests and actual missile launch notifications, and a cancellation command that can be triggered within seconds of an erroneous notification. HI-EMA expects to issue a formal preliminary report of their investigation findings and corrective actions next week.

The press conference on the erroneous missile alarm is available here. The State of Hawaii Emergency Management Agency also provides a document titled “Frequently Asked Questions with Answers: Ballistic Missile Preparedness,” that includes information regarding the State of Hawaii’s preparations for potential nuclear attack, the existing process for informing the public in event of attack, plans for post-attack communication, and suggestions for at-home preparedness kits.