It Was a False Alarm… This Time
On January 13th at 8:07 a.m. local time, citizens and tourists in Hawaii received an emergency alert via SMS from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) indicating a ballistic missile threat. The message urged recipients to seek immediate shelter, and noted it was not a drill. Thirty-eight minutes later, a similar message was sent via SMS from the HI-EMA retracting the first message:
In the nearly 40 minutes between the messages, chaos ensued in Hawaii. Reports began to emerge of children being placed in sewers, among other tactics to survive a potential missile attack.
Thankfully, there was never a ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. The initial message was sent in error. But why did it take nearly 40 minutes to send a second message? Why did the HI-EMA initially use social media to alert the public that it was a mistake, instead of instantly sending another SMS? Why wasn’t the same platform used to clear the error?
Below is a timeline of the events that unfolded as communicated via a press release by the Hi-EMA:
“Honolulu – The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) has confirmed that there was no ballistic missile and that there were no computer hacks to the HI-EMA system. The cause of the false alarm was human error. The following is a synopsis of what occurred:
HI-EMA has already taken measures to ensure that an incident such as the one that occurred this morning does not happen again. HI-EMA has also started a review of cancellation procedures to inform the public immediately if a cancellation is warranted. We understand that false alarms such as this can erode public confidence in our emergency notification systems. We understand the serious nature of the warning alert systems and the need to get this right 100% of the time.
“I know first-hand how today’s false alarm affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused. I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can do to immediately improve our emergency management systems, procedures and staffing,” said Gov. David Ige.
The following is a synopsis of what occurred:
- 8:05 a.m. – A routine internal test during a shift change was initiated. This was a test that involved the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alert, but no warning sirens. This is a standard routine and is performed three times a day.
- 8:07 a.m. – A warning test was triggered statewide by the State Warning Point, HI-EMA.
- 8:10 a.m. – State Adjutant Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, validated with the U.S. Pacific Command that there was no missile launch. Honolulu Police Department notified of the false alarm by HI-EMA.
- 8:13 a.m. – State Warning Point issues a cancellation of the Civil Danger Warning Message.
- 8:20 a.m. – HI-EMA issues public notification of cancellation via their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
- 8:24 a.m. – Governor Ige retweets HI-EMA’s cancellation notice.
- 8:30 a.m. – Governor posts cancellation notification to his Facebook page.
- 8:45 a.m. – After getting authorization from FEMA Integral Public Alert and Warning System, HI-EMA issued the following statement “False Alarm. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. False Alarm.”
- 9:30 a.m. – Governor makes initial media notification.
- 9:34 a.m. – Governor’s message posted to his Facebook and Twitter accounts.”
Hawaii Government was Not in Control
The Hawaii government, or HI-EMA, was not in control of the emergency messaging. The first alert was sent via SMS, but social media was initially used to announce the alert was a mistake. The problem of utilizing separate communication channels is that different channels have different audiences. Those who receive SMS messages may not utilize social media, and vice versa. We are not saying do not utilize social media during a disaster, however, if you send an SMS message alerting people of a crisis, use the same platform for continued communication. Do identify and understand methods of alternative communication that may be needed after a message is released in error.
Nearly 40 minutes passed between the two HI-EMA SMS messages. In that time, government officials took to their personal social channels to alert the public. How can citizens rely on the social media of a government official in that situation? What if the account had been hacked? When it comes to authority levels, every state should announce official spokespeople that will be communicating with the public during an emergency. This tactic will ensure citizens know in advance who to listen to and eliminate political noise or confusion.
Wording of Alert
The wording of the initial SMS message by the HI-EMA was not clear. The message stated, “Ballistic Missile threat inbound to Hawaii.” Which parts of Hawaii were at risk? Is the threat applicable to everyone in Hawaii? The state is graphically diverse and stretches more than 4,000 square miles. An alert, especially one of that caliber, must have clear wording.
HI-EMA did not have the mechanism in place to recall the first message, nor did they have the proper message maps pre-established to announce, via SMS, the alert was a mistake. The 38-minute delay was caused by a lengthy approval process for the follow-up message. All messages should be pre-scripted and authority should be assigned so that the person who hit the button by mistake has the same authority to recall it instantly.
Pre-scripted messages must be established in anticipation to vulnerabilities.
When creating a crisis management plan, always remember to PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM. In this case, the Hawaiian government needed to predict their audience, communication platforms, and scenarios that could lead to releasing statements. From a planning perspective, what are the key messages that need to be released in view of a threat? Prior to a crisis, always remember to:
- Identify the audience
- Identify the messages
- Identify the strategy for when a message is released in error
- Identify how to recall the message made in error – both by the original tool and additional communication channels that may help expedite the recall
Many times, organizations skip the critical predict and plan stages and jump straight to perform. An organization, even a government organization like HI-EMA, cannot perform during a crisis by skipping the first two steps of preparation.
People are not trained on what to do in disaster
The biggest issue was that people did not know what to do once they received the initial message. Where was the training?
Thankfully, the missile threat was not real, but we all can learn from what unfolded. There is a great deal of planning that was not conducted prior to this event. The great news is, there was no threat and the event highlighted the significant weak points in the government’s plan. Now Hawaii has time to better PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM., and other states need to follow suit.