On January 13, which was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday morning on the Big Island of Hawaii, I was in my room at the Hilton Hotel in Waikoloa Village looking at emails on my iPhone. At 8:08 a.m., my phone started to vibrate and I received an all-caps “emergency alert” text which read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”.
This was a highly unusual and disturbing text message, and it was the worst one I have ever received. Many questions and thoughts ran through my mind. Was the message real, a test, or some bad joke text? No sirens were blaring a warning. There was relative calm outside of my room. And Hawaii is supposed to be paradise, and a missile attack seemed so unreal. But the official-looking words “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” made the alert seem real. I started looking at other news sources on my iPhone, and could not find anything on local or national sites about the inbound missile. My mom turned on the television, and the news channel she found had the alert showing on the screen. Seeing the alert on the screen made it very official and real. Was the missile (which my parents and I — and later many others — assumed was nuclear) fired by North Korea? Because of the recent heated dialogue and threats between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, and the tendency of Kim to test fire and show the world his latest long-range missiles, I presumed the missile was coming from North Korea. The threats between Trump and Kim also made the alert seem more believable. What was the intended target? Where would the missile hit? How much time was left before the missile would strike a target in Hawaii? The words “inbound” and “immediate” in the alert suggested that there was limited time. What sort of blast would occur? Would we hear a loud explosion? How much radiation would there be? I was traveling with my parents, so I did not need to contact them in the mainland about my situation and the impending missile strike. Would this be my — and my parents’ — last morning alive? Would the United States retaliate? What was I (and my family) supposed to do?
Because the alert said to seek immediate shelter, my parents and I decided it was best to stay in our room — which was in a large hotel structure — after closing and moving away from the windows and curtains. We could not think of any better option, and we had no idea if there were any “designated” shelters nearby. Yet we had no food or emergency supplies in our room. If the missile stuck nearby, and we survived the initial blow but there was nuclear radiation fallout, how would we survive in the days ahead?
Then, after 38 minutes of deep concern, non-stop discussions with my parents, and sheltering in our room, I received a follow-up text (at 8:46 a.m.), which read: “Emergency Alert: There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm”. That was certainly a relief and great news. That text was followed by an announcement over Hilton’s public address system that the missile threat was not real.
I could now go outside and explore more of paradise, and forget about the thought of a ballistic missile strike destroying property and ending massive numbers of lives, including those of my parents and myself. My parents and I smiled at each other, and we all agreed that the entire incident was truly shocking, unbelievable and should never have occurred.
My thoughts then turned to how the incredible alarm could have happened by mistake, what effect the false alert had on other people, and what lessons could be learned and what perspective was gained from the experience.
News reports disclosed that an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had simply pushed the wrong button during a routine shift change. I found that sorry to be beyond belief, but the State of Hawaii and the FCC said they would be doing an investigation into the matter. It also seemed incredible that one person could send an instant statewide and panic-causing alert of an imminent missile strike, but the process to cancel the warning could take 38 minutes. The FCC has now made preliminary findings in its investigation, and concluded that the officer fully intended to issue the alert because he misinterpreted a confused message. According to the FCC, the midnight shift supervisor had played a standard recording which included the language “exercise, exercise, exercise” and the text from a real Emergency Alert System message (which includes “this is not a drill”), and the employee who clicked the alert was convinced it was real. The State of Hawaii has announced that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator has resigned, and the false-alert-button-pusher had been terminated, having at least twice before confused drills for real events. The State also announced that there were insufficient management controls, and that “poor computer software design and human factors” contributed to the false alert and its delayed retraction. The FCC cited both “inadequate safeguards” for false alerts and a “lack of preparation” for the event of a false alarm.
In reading a number of news stories about the mistaken alert, there were many reactions and emotions before the “all clear” notice was made. Some people were in a state of confusion, and many were highly stressed, frantic, or even traumatized. Some openly prayed. Others abandoned their cars and ran for whatever cover they could find. Some parents put their children in storm drains (as a shelter). Some people barricaded themselves in bathrooms and closets, while some crawled under tables at restaurants. Many had panic attacks. More called loved ones and said goodbyes, and others said final farewells. Some people walked off their jobs to get to their families. There were reports of people driving at very high speeds as they sought safety or to be with their families. The reality is that most people did whatever they thought they needed to do to protect themselves and their loved ones.
With regard to my perspective and lessons learned, I concluded that some things are beyond one’s control. But I think the state of Hawaii and all other states that can be impacted by a missile strike need to have better training and develop improved, more fail-safe, and redundant warning communications systems, including texts, and coordination with radio and television stations, local governments, and the US Defense Department. Those states should also develop training materials and survival tips for their residents and visitors on what to do and where to go in the event of a missile attack. In addition, people should have emergency plans and supplies in the event of a missile strike just as they would for a tsunami, earthquake, or other natural disaster. Finally, there needs to be fewer threats made between the leaders of the US and North Korea, and more diplomacy, as well as the development and installation of a more effective US missile defense system.