Hawaii worker sent false missile alert thinking it was real

An erroneous warning of an inbound missile on Jan. 13 from Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (left) was not corrected for 38 minutes, causing panic throughout the state.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat/AP/File
An erroneous warning of an inbound missile on Jan. 13 from Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (left) was not corrected for 38 minutes, causing panic throughout the state.

WASHINGTON — The Hawaii emergency management services worker who sent a false alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile had a long history of poor performance and sent the warning because he thought the state faced an actual threat, officials said Tuesday.

The mistake, which touched off panic on Jan. 13, occurred when the worker misinterpreted testing instructions from a supervisor, according to the Federal Communications Commission and state officials in Hawaii.

Believing the instructions were for a real emergency, the worker, who was not identified, sent the live alert to the cellphones of all Hawaii residents and visitors to the state.


State officials had previously called the episode an accident. Governor David Ige blamed the false warning on a state employee who had “pressed the wrong button.”

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The FCC and state officials have both been investigating. The FCC investigation, which is continuing, revealed a series of missteps and major gaps in Hawaii’s protocol for handling public safety alerts.

The state report was more critical of the employee, who it said was fired. The probe found he had been a “source of concern” for 10 years and had twice before confused drills with real-world events.

In a related development, Vern T. Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, resigned Tuesday.

Beginning at 8:05 a.m. on Jan 13, the reports say, a midnight supervisor began an unplanned drill during a shift change. The supervisor pretended to be from the US Pacific Command in a phone call placed to day-shift workers. In the call, the supervisor said, “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” as required during tests. According to the FCC, the supervisor also erroneously said, “This is not a drill.”


According to Bruce Oliveira, a retired Army general who led the state investigation, the message spoken by the shift leader did not adhere to the script outlined in the protocol. “What was actually said in the script was taken from an actual notification,” he said. But he emphasized the shift leader had “flexibility” and did say “exercise, exercise, exercise” before and after his message. That “tells everybody that this is a practice drill,” he said.

Although other emergency management officials understood the state was conducting a drill, the employee who sent the alert said in a written statement that he had believed there was a real emergency.

He then chose from options in a drop-down menu that included test and real alerts. Prompted with the question “Are you sure you want to send this alert?” the employee clicked “yes,” the FCC said.

Panic set in across Hawaii almost immediately, with people furiously contacting members of their family and seeking shelter. The escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea added to the level of concern.

When the employee was directed to cancel the alert to prevent it from going to any phones that had not yet received it, he “just sat there and didn’t respond,” the state report said.


It took about 38 minutes to send a second alert that said the original one was an error. The FCC faulted Hawaii’s emergency agency for lacking measures to prevent the mistake and to quickly notify the public to disregard it.

Hawaii “didn’t have reasonable safeguards in place,” said Ajit Pai, FCC chairman.

Michael O’Rielly, a Republican commissioner, said: “It is astounding that no one was hurt.”

The mistake has stoked calls by lawmakers and regulators to improve wireless emergency alerts, which are slowly being updated and will include longer messages and Spanish-language versions starting next year.

The false alarm also exposed vulnerabilities in the military’s Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. On the morning of the alert, the command’s operations center did not have immediate access to the state’s unclassified alert system. Mobile devices are not allowed in the command headquarters, for security reasons.

The center did not realize what was happening until military staff frantically called in from outside. Commander Dave Benham, a spokesman for the Pacific Command, said that process had taken only seconds. The command sent out its own message correcting the false alarm.

The report recommends, among many suggestions, that Hawaii use a two-person confirmation process, in which all directives and actions are read aloud and verified by two employees. It also recommends adding an additional level of approval before a real alert is issued, such as “Are you sure you want to send a ‘Real World Ballistic Missile Alert’?”

On Tuesday, the FCC voted to improve one aspect of the alert system, allowing public safety officials to send more geographically precise alerts to avoid spreading panic across broad swaths of the public. Under the new rules, alerts can be directed to areas within a tenth of a mile of the target audience.

The new technical requirement, effective in November 2019, is seen as a major upgrade by public safety officials. They say they have been put in the difficult position of deciding to send alerts for fires, hurricanes and other emergencies, while balancing concerns of raising fears among people who are not immediately in harm’s way.

“When disaster strikes, it’s essential that Americans in harm’s way get reliable information so that they can stay safe and protect their loved ones,” Pai said.