George F. Lee, The Star-Advertiser
Vern Miyagi, Administrator, HEMA, left, and Hawaii Gov. David Ige addressed the media Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, during a press conference at the Hawaii Emergency Management Center at Diamond Head Saturday following the false alarm issued of a missile launch on Hawaii. A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. (George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP)

Among the lessons to be learned from the recent mistake that, for 38 minutes, led Hawaiians to believe a ballistic missile was heading their way, was this: Twitter functioned as a more effective system than anything the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency could offer.

A full 20 minutes before Hawaiian officials issued a correction, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, issued her assurance to the Hawaiian people, via a tweet, that a threat was not real.

As embarrassing as the false alarm was for Hawaiian emergency officials, it’s far better to learn lessons this way than from failures that might occur during an actual emergency. In that spirit, states should learn to ensure their systems are reflexive to rapidly evolving crises.

When a ballistic missile could strike its target within minutes, it’s simply unacceptable to wait a half hour or more to correct a mistake. Even if an actual missile were in the air, constant updates, broadcast to cellphones and on social media, would be helpful. These should include information about where to seek shelter.

Instead, Hawaiian officials sought advice from Washington when none was needed. This added needless delay when the public was in desperate need of reassurance.

Some have questioned why 50 separate states, and not the federal government, are responsible for national security warnings. The answer is that states can be more flexible in responding to threats and that a system diffused among 50 states could prevent an enemy from immobilizing the nation through an attack on a central communications center in Washington.

But that works only if state systems are flexible, quick and reliable.

The federal government should play a role. This incident was under the jurisdiction of FEMA as much as the FCC. In the current system, FEMA is both watchdog and cleanup crew: overseeing the strength of state infrastructure to respond to crises and assisting with disasters that overwhelm state capacities.

This mistake happened when an employee in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency performed a routine test of the state’s emergency alert systems before a shift change. The employee accidentally selected “missile alert” instead of “test missile alert” and confirmed the selection, sending out an alert across radio, television and mobile phones that a ballistic missile was “inbound” to Hawaii. “This is not a drill,” the alert read.

That suggests more safeguards should be in place — ones that could be quickly satisfied in the event of a real emergency.

12 comments on this story

Surprisingly, the Japanese public broadcasting network experienced the same problem last week when employees accidentally sent a news alert to mobile phones indicating North Korea had launched a missile toward the island. It was corrected five minutes later.

If states take this opportunity to update emergency notification plans and to make them as responsive as current technologies allow, Hawaii’s mistake will have served a good purpose. Families also should use the opportunity to take stock of their personal emergency plans.

Such updates may be difficult to prioritize when disasters seem distant, but the Hawaiian experience is a reminder that threats — real or otherwise — come when least expected.