This screenshot shows the actual emergency warning sent to residents of Hawaii
This screenshot shows the actual emergency warning sent to residents of Hawaii

Hawaii’s false alarm: ‘This guy feels bad’

EARLIER this month, the main reasons the good smartphone users of Hawaii would reach for their devices and fire up Google was to find out when the latest Star Wars film was showing and how their teams were doing in the NFL playoffs.

On Saturday morning, that all changed.

Searches spiked for a very specific and disturbing guide: How to survive a nuclear attack.

The surge in queries came as an emergency alert was - we now know - mistakenly sent to everyone in the island state.

"BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL," the alert, sent at 8.07am read.

For almost 40 full minutes until a cancellation message was issued, people thought they were going to die. Panic ensued, crowds ran to get as far from the shore as they could, people cried and screamed in the streets.

For some, survival instincts kicked in - others turned to their favoured search engine.

Google trends map for Hawaii: 'How to survive a nuclear attack'

EMPLOYEE RESPONSIBLE 'FEELS BAD'

While the message was a false alarm there was one part that was kind of true. It wasn't a drill, it was simply the result of a guy pressing the wrong button.

And that guy, a civil defence employee who was involved in a warning test of the state's emergency alert system - the ireless emergency alert - now "feels terrible".

Hawaii's emergency management administrator Vern T Miyagi yesterday indicated the man responsible was dealing with some deep regret.

"This guy feels bad, right. He's not doing this on purpose - it was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it," Mr Miyagi said in a press conference on Saturday.

He said the employee would "be counselled and drilled so this never happens again".

The retired Army major general explained that a two-step process to send an alert was completed, rather than triggering a system test, which was what the employee was supposed to do.

HEMA boss Vern Miyagi and Hawaii Gov. David Ige explain what went wrong.
HEMA boss Vern Miyagi and Hawaii Gov. David Ige explain what went wrong.

When triggering an actual alert, the person who carries it out tells the system that is what they want to do, and then confirms it.

"There is a screen that says: Are you sure you want to do this?" Mr Miyagi said, indicating that the man confirmed to the system, triggering panic across the state over a missile threat from North Korea.

As well as sending the citizens of Hawaii into a panicked frenzy, the false alert highlighted major problems with the state's emergency warning system.

While a lone employee could easily send an alert effectively telling citizens their lives were about to end, no one could figure out how to quickly take it back.

'WE WERE NOT PREPARED'

It took 38 minutes to send out another message. "There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm."

Hawaii Governor David Ige said there was no process in place to send out a message saying the warning had been a false alarm.

"You know, we were not prepared for that, the fact that an alert was issued that was incorrect," he said. "So we have built that now."

Hawaii’s civil defence warning devices, which sounds an alert siren during natural disasters, were also sounded. The department couldn’t say who authorised that.
Hawaii’s civil defence warning devices, which sounds an alert siren during natural disasters, were also sounded. The department couldn’t say who authorised that.

A timeline released by the state's defence department said three minutes after the message was sent, at 8.10am, US Pacific Command and the Honolulu Police Department were told there had been a false alarm.

At 8.13am, the initial message was cancelled so that those out of range would not receive it at a later time.

At 8.20am a notification was posted to Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's social media channels, and the Governor gave them a retweet.

It wasn't until 8.45am, after "getting authorisation from FEMA Integral Public Alert and Warning System", that the agency issued the follow-up "Civil Emergency Message" that there was no missile threat.

TESTING HALTED

The department said it was now taking steps to make sure the process was improved so such a mistake couldn't happen again.

The process required to issue such an alert - both tests and actual warnings - will now be carried out by two people rather than one.

A highway sign tells locals ‘There is no threat’ in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Picture: Jhune Liwanag/AP
A highway sign tells locals ‘There is no threat’ in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Picture: Jhune Liwanag/AP

And the EMA will "hold off" on testing the system, "until we get this squared away", Mr Miyagi said.

The department and the governor have apologised profusely for causing what Governor Ige described as "a day that most of us will never forget".

"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," he said.

It not known whether the employee responsible for issuing the false alert will be disciplined.



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