The emergency worker who sent a false public safety alert on Jan. 13 warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack on Hawaii believed that a ballistic missile was truly bound for the state after mishearing a recorded message as part of an unscheduled drill, according to a preliminary investigation by federal officials.
A combination of human error and improper safeguards led the worker to deliberately send the alert message, which sowed widespread confusion and fear for 38 minutes, the Federal Communications Commission said in its report Tuesday.
The mistake began with a night-shift supervisor who decided to test incoming day-shift workers with a spontaneous drill. The supervisor managing the day-shift workers appeared to be aware of the upcoming test but believed it was aimed at the outgoing night-shift workers. Thus the day-shift manager was not prepared to supervise the morning test, the FCC said.
As a result, there was a lack of supervision when the night-shift supervisor called the day-shift workers pretending to be the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, which is charged with detecting missile threats.
Following standard procedures, the night-shift supervisor posing as Pacific Command played a recorded message to the emergency workers warning them of the fake threat. The message included the phrase “Exercise, exercise, exercise.” But the message inaccurately included the phrase “This is not a drill.”
The worker who then sent the emergency alert failed to hear the “exercise” portion of the message and acted upon the “This is not a drill” part of the message that should not have been included, according to the report.
The mistake was not stopped by the Hawaii emergency management agency’s computer systems because there is little difference between the user interface for submitting test alerts and the one for sending actual alerts.
“Hawaii’s alert software allows users to send live alerts and test alerts using the same interface,” said James Wiley, an attorney adviser at the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. To send an alert, emergency management employees select a pre-written message from a dropdown menu on a computer. They then must click “yes” when the system asks “Are you sure that you want to send this Alert?”
Wiley added that the confirmation prompts employees see before alerts are transmitted contain “the same language irrespective of whether the message [is] a test or actual alert.”
Three minutes after the message was sent, the day-shift supervisor received the false cellphone alert, and the process of responding to the mistake began. The emergency management agency notified Hawaii Gov. David Ige of the problem. Seven minutes after the alert was sent, officials stopped broadcasting the alert — but because there was no plan for how to handle a false alert, the agency could not issue an official correction.
It was not until 26 minutes into the crisis that officials settled on a proper way to inform the public about the all-clear, and workers began drafting a correction. It took another 14 minutes after that for the correction to be distributed.
The lack of a contingency plan reflected a critical failure on the part of Hawaii’s emergency management agency, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” he said. “Each should make sure they have adequate safeguards in place … The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an alert it is indeed a credible alert.”
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