United States: State of Hawaii criticized by head of Federal Communications Commission over incoming missile alert mistake

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
Image: Federal Communications Commission.

On Sunday, the head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, described the erroneous alert, sent on Saturday, warning of an imminent nuclear missile strike, as an "absolutely unacceptable" mistake by the Emergency Management Agency of the state of Hawaii. He emphasized that the FCC would "focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again."

At 8:07 am local time on Saturday, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) sent out the following alert: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL." It appeared on people's mobile phones throughout the state and caused widespread panic. It took 38 minutes for the state to retract the warning, which Pai said made the error worse. Vern Miyagi, the HI-EMA's administrator, stated that an employee had mistakenly sent out the alert during a test performed at shift change. On Sunday, Cindy McMillan, communications director for state governor David Ige, clarified that after accidentally pressing the button to send the alert, the employee had gone on to accidentally confirm the command. Richard Rapoza, spokesperson for HI-EMA, said the employee had since been reassigned.

The message people received on their phones.

Pai said that FCC analysis of the incident showed that the state had failed to put "reasonable safeguards or process controls" in place to prevent a false alert from being sent. According to The New York Times, the state will now require two people to authorize the issuance of an alert. Also, a "cancellation template" will be created to solve the problem of quickly sending corrections over the mobile phone networks.

Both HI-EMA administrator Miyagi and Hawaii governor Ige apologized for the mistake, with Ige saying "I, too, am extremely upset about this." Tulsi Gabbard, a House Representative from Hawaii, referred to an "epic failure of leadership" in an interview with ABC News.

Tests by North Korea of missiles that, according to a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, could strike Hawaii 20 minutes after launch have heightened tensions in the state. Air raid sirens used in the Cold War have been reactivated there.