Hawaii had that weekend missile scare. Could it happen here?
The state’s emergency management director said it’s unlikely Massachusetts would experience a false ballistic missile alarm like the one that caused widespread panic in Hawaii.
Massachusetts has “very different” protocols in place than does Hawaii, where a worker on Saturday pressed the wrong button during a training exercise. The miscue was not corrected for 38 minutes.
“The only way we’re going to have a false alert go out is by intentional wrongdoing, not by mistake,” said Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Still, the Hawaii snafu prompted Schwartz and three Cabinet secretaries to assess the state’s emergency alert system and to order a review of protocols in place to issue an alert.
Agency officials will meet on Wednesday to discuss the results, he said.
“We’re looking for any place to change or tighten up our procedures,” he said.
Unlike in Hawaii, an emergency dispatcher would not be able to create and send an alert on his or her own.
Massachusetts requires three people to agree to send such an alert, he said.
A dispatcher and a duty officer together would create an alert message, he said.
Then, one of three MEMA executives — the director, deputy director, or chief of response or field services — would have to authorize sending the message, he said.
The message would warn residents of an imminent threat and implore people to seek cover, shelter in place, and monitor the news media for updates, Schwartz said.
Massachusetts also appears to use a different type of alert system than Hawaii’s.
Hawaii uses a single communications platform to test alerts as well as to issue real ones, but Massachusetts has a two-step system. To send a test alert, a MEMA employee has to log off of a live system and log on to another platform. The system prevents a test message from being inadvertently sent as an actual warning, he said.
Nor does Massachusetts use “a one-click system” like what Hawaii used, Schwartz said.
Instead of an operator choosing an option from a drop-down menu, in MEMA’s system the employee must open two different screens, and then cut and paste a message in order to compose an alert, Schwartz said.
If a real threat were to endanger the public, Massachusetts residents would probably learn of it from the federal government, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not MEMA, Schwartz said.
If a ballistic missile was approaching, FEMA may issue an alert to multiple states, since it might not be immediately clear what the intended target is, he said.
“You don’t want to have a situation where Massachusetts does one thing, New York City does another, and Connecticut does another,” Schwartz said. “You want consistency.”
Residents would probably receive a short message on their cellphones, followed by bulletins on radio and television, he said.
Other state agencies also detailed their emergency alert plans after the weekend’s scare in Hawaii.
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said his agency “would push out any alerts and directions for the public to follow on our various media platforms,” including Twitter, Facebook, Next Door, mspnews.org, and the State Police app.
“We routinely train and plan with other public safety agencies on how to deploy personnel and equipment and establish a joint command structure in response to any kind of critical incident, including hazards both man-made and natural,” Procopio wrote in an e-mail.
“Many of the duties we perform in a critical incident would be applicable to, and required in, responding to an act of military aggression. These would include, but not be limited to, duties such as evacuation, search and rescue, and helping emergency medical crews reach victims.”
A Boston Police Department spokesman said city residents can always check its website, bpdnews.com, or its Twitter feed, @bostonpolice, for important messages and instructions.
The scare in Hawaii wasn’t the first false alert portending disaster in the nation’s history, though not every instance has startled the general public.
False missile alarms briefly put military officials on high alert in 1962, 1971, 1979, and 1980.
On ready.gov, an emergency preparedness website, the federal government said that potential targets of a nuclear attack include strategic missile sites and military bases; centers of government, including Washington, D.C., and state capitals; transit and communications centers; manufacturing, industrial, technology, and financial hubs; major ports and airfields; and petroleum refineries, electrical power plants, and chemical plants.
Taking shelter during a nuclear strike, the site says, is “absolutely necessary,” in either a blast shelter or a fallout shelter.
The former is built to offer some protection against blast pressure, but “even a blast shelter cannot withstand a direct hit from a nuclear explosion,” the site says.