The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai tweeted a statement on Sunday calling the false alert issued by Hawaiian officials on Saturday that a ballistic missile was headed toward the islands “totally unacceptable” and blamed the state for not having the right protocol in place to prevent it.
The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable. It caused a wave of panic across the state — worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert as issued. Moreover, false alerts undermine public condense in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies
The FCC’s investigation into this incident is well underway. We have been in close contact with the federal and state officials, gathering the facts about how this false alert was issued. Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert.
Moving forward, we will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again. Federal, state and local officials across the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them. We must also ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.
The false emergency alert sent yesterday in #Hawaii caused panic across the state and was absolutely unacceptable. Here’s my statement on where the @FCC’s investigation stands. https://t.co/xtXJK8W6He pic.twitter.com/r33TAYZ3lM
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) January 14, 2018
White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters on Saturday also blamed Hawaii.
“The president has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise,” Walters said. “This was purely a state exercise.”
The reaction to the terror-filled 38 minutes when people took to basements and bathrooms in the hopes of surviving such an attack has ranged from blaming state officials to “human error.”
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz confirmed on Twitter that the alert, which said that a ballistic missile was inbound to Hawaii and urged people to seek shelter, was sent due to “human error.” The initial alert went out at 8:07 am, but it wasn’t until 8:43 am that the state sent a second alert, announcing it was a false alarm.
Governor David Ige told CNN, “An employee pushed the wrong button.”
At a press conference on Saturday afternoon, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said that a “staffer accidentally selected a live alert, instead of a test alert. After the alert went out, there was no way to automatically cancel or recall the message,” Wired reported.
So while the missile alert was sent by text message to cell phones across the state, the claim that is was a false alert took place on Twitter, including from Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).
HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE. pic.twitter.com/DxfTXIDOQs
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 13, 2018
The alert caused widespread panic on social media.
“Waking up to an alert saying there was a missile heading towards Hawaii (while I’m in Hawaii) was honestly the scariest moment I have ever experienced,” one Twitter user wrote.
Retired Admiral David Simpson, former chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau during the Obama administration, made the mistake seem like a routine error that could happen at any time.
“It’s a regular PC interface,” Simpson said. “This person probably had a mouse and a drop-down menu of the kind of alert messages you can send.”
And someone picked the wrong alert message.
But, Simpson said in the Wired report the biggest question may be about the federal government’s role in the debacle.
In the event of an actual attack, the first government agency to initiate an alert would be the North American Air Defense Command, or NORAD, which is located in a cave in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, its staffers—known as watch standers—monitor a global network of sensors that can detect a missile launch. If it detects a missile en route to Hawaii, NORAD would send a message to Pacific Command, which would, in turn, alert the state emergency management center.
That’s why, says Simpson, the biggest question of all may be what the federal government was doing after the alert went out. The Emergency Alert System, which predated Wireless Emergency Alerts, was created with the specific goal of letting the president communicate with the country in the event of a nuclear attack. The US has spent billions of dollars maintaining this system, and yet, 38 minutes went by before Hawaii sent a second message, acknowledging the false alarm. The president, or any of the federal agencies with access to the emergency alert system, could have corrected the record much sooner.
“We paid big bucks to the DOD and provide very good capabilities to the president to communicate directly to the nation,” Simpson said. “Where’s the accountability there for not piping up immediately?”
“I think that’s going to wind up ultimately being the scandal,” Simpson said. “Where were they with all of this?”