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The False Alarm in Hawaii

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” read the notification in blaring capital letters. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The emergency alert sent to phones of Hawaii residents on Saturday morning, wrongly announcing there was a ballistic missile threat inbound to the US state. The mistake, caused by an employee who “pushed the wrong button,” has demonstrated flaws in the US emergency notifications system and provoked anger from residents and visitors fearing for their safety. Screenshot by Matthew Nelson/Washington Post.

For at least 13 minutes on Saturday morning, Hawaii residents were treated to one of the worst possible situations in their lives. Days later, we now know the alert was erroneously sent out by an employee who “pushed the wrong button,” according to Hawaii Governor David Ige. Vern Miyagi, the administration for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said, “This is my fault, and we will work so this doesn’t happen again.”


This incident is remarkable because it has demonstrated how ill-prepared the United States is for a military incident of this kind. From 4,200 miles away in Chicago, I first received word of this hypothetical missile strike through Twitter. For the briefest moment, I had to contemplate the reality: What should I do if my country, my city, my town is under nuclear attack?

Who fired it? Initial suspicions likely fell upon North Korea, the state we know has missiles capable of reaching the Hawaiian Islands and with whom tensions have risen as US President Trump taunted North Korea leader Kim Jong Un over the size of his nuclear button.

It was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the U.S. Representative for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, who reassured the residents of Hawaii that the alert was false. “HAWAII — THIS IS A FALSE ALARM,” she tweeted. “I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.”


While all this was happening — while 1.429 million citizens were confused and panicking — the Twitter-happy President of the United States, the constitutionally designated commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, continued to golf in Florida.

“The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise,” said Lindsay Walters, a deputy press secretary, according to The New York Times. “This was purely a state exercise.”

It’s not Trump’s fault or responsibility.

The false alarm has also identified other flaws of the US emergency notifications system, as Wireless Emergency Alerts — the technical name for the system behind that delivered Saturday’s message — are used to send messages both for impending nuclear missile attacks and for child abduction alerts. Tweets indicate that the alerts were either dismissed by residents or otherwise failed to serve their alerting purpose.
https://twitter.com/blam/status/952246660792373248
Apple, Google and other manufacturers are likely going to evaluate their devices after this false alarm to ensure that users are adequately informed in the event of a true emergency message. Meanwhile, government agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission will investigate the events and recommend improvements to the US national emergency warning systems.

For those of us not in Hawaii on Saturday morning, though, we may never truly appreciate the fear and horror that struck residents and vacationers as they realised the country might be under attack.

But it is time for all of us to realise that today, for perhaps the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States once again faces the possibility of a nuclear attack on its soil.

By Leo Ji

software engineer and news nerd