A False Ballistic Missile Alert Frightens Hawaii Residents What happened behind the scenes Saturday in the moments after the mistaken missile alert in Hawaii, and how is the federal government responding?
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A False Ballistic Missile Alert Frightens Hawaii Residents

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A False Ballistic Missile Alert Frightens Hawaii Residents

A False Ballistic Missile Alert Frightens Hawaii Residents

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And let's begin with the unimaginable - the emergency missile alert that terrified people in Hawaii on Saturday morning. The warning read (reading) ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

It turned out to be human error. The administrator for Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency has taken responsibility saying the wrong button was pushed during a shift change. It was a further 38 minutes though before they issued a correction alert. Officials are trying to make sure something like this never happens again. They're trying to reassure people that they have fixed the issue. Here is Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard speaking on All Things Considered yesterday.


TULSI GABBARD: When you're dealing with a ballistic missile coming towards Hawaii, there is less than 15 minutes that people have before potential impact. So when you're dealing with those minutes and seconds, what we don't want is for people to be spending that precious time wondering, is this for real? Or is this just another mistake?

GREEN: I want to bring in NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey there, Tom.


GREEN: So people were spending time believing this was real - it seemed like. I mean, they were huddling in bathrooms. They were saying final goodbyes. I mean, what happens now? How do federal officials restore credibility after putting people through this?

BOWMAN: Well, both Hawaii and the federal government say there'll be investigations. But, again, if you live in Hawaii, you can imagine how angry people are - how angry you would be...

GREEN: Yeah.

BOWMAN: ...If you're there with your family in Hawaii. There were some people who jumped into bathtubs apparently to be safe from what they thought was an incoming missile. Now as we laid out, what happened was an employee pushed the wrong button. So rather than missile test, this person punched missile alert. But, again, it took 38...

GREEN: That's a big mistake.

BOWMAN: Well, it's a huge mistake. But the problem is it took 38 minutes to issue another message basically saying this was a mistake - no incoming missile. There was a false alert. And in the meantime, people like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was sending out tweets, Facebook messages. But, you know, that helped. But you really need that cellphone alert because, of course, we all carry our cellphones.

GREEN: Right.

BOWMAN: We've had weather alerts in the past - Amber Alerts. You needed that to - you know, to really make you feel safe.

GREEN: You know, I mean, these tensions with North Korea here - you know, here in California, I mean, I've been at dinners with friends. And we've sort of just casually wondered, I mean, how long would it take for a missile to come from North Korea to, say, the West Coast of the United States. And I don't think I even know what procedures are in place in these kinds of moments. How do these alerts actually work?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, any incoming missile from either North Korea or anywhere else in the world would be picked up by U.S. military officials working out of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado using satellites and sensors. And that information if there's an incoming missile would be sent quickly to FEMA and then on to state officials for that alert. And, of course, you get those alerts on TV, radio, and most importantly cellphones as well. That's how it's supposed to work.

GREEN: OK, so the military could pick something up. This gets to officials - federal officials, state officials - to put out an alert. A lot of things are supposed to happen here. But in this case, one person pushing the wrong button was able to cause this.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the fix now is they're going to have two people. So you know, if you're sending out any sort of alert - if it's a test alert or a real alert, you'll have a person next to you verifying that you're actually pushing the right button. That's one thing. And, again, a question - an obvious question is, in this case where the Hawaiian officials had to talk to FEMA to send out a new message, why did it take so long?

GREEN: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And why can't this be automatic? If a state official makes a mistake, why can't that person or that person's boss immediately say this was a mistake. Within three to five or ten seconds, we're going to send out another message saying false alert - no missile coming in. It shouldn't take 38 minutes.

GREEN: No. And, I mean, a lot of people are furious about this, including a lot of public officials - including the chairman of the FCC, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. FCC will also weigh-in on this. They'll do an investigation. And, again, how many other states have that two-person system that they've now institute in Hawaii. That's another question here.

GREEN: Probably more soon if they don't.

BOWMAN: I would think so. That's right.

GREEN: Has this happened before?

BOWMAN: You know, there have been incidents in the past involving nuclear power plants, false messages sent out that there's been an accident. Bill Perry, the former defense secretary, talked at one time about how someone put a training of - a messenger video into the system, and it said a couple of hundred missiles were heading toward the United States.

GREEN: Oh, my God.

BOWMAN: But these are thankfully quite rare. And hopefully something like this won't happen again, and they'll be able to fix these problems.

GREEN: All right, speaking to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about that emergency missile alert that scared a lot of people in Hawaii on Saturday morning. It turned out to be a human error because the wrong button was pushed. Tom, thank you for updating on this.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

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