This is not a Drill

The intricacies of something that was very much supposed to be a drill.

Staff Writer Clara Scheidle

On that fateful January morning, thousands across the Hawaiian islands woke in fear to a frantic message, “Emergency Alert,” then in all caps: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAI`I. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The alarm caused mass panic as people everywhere on beaches, in streets, and in their homes had to dash for some kind of shelter. Students who were awake and walking around campus were forced to run for cover. The stress of the alert even caused one man to have a heart attack.

Lauren Nosworthy, a student and resident assistant (RA) at Hawai`i Pacific University, had no time to feel emotional. Instead of resorting to dread, Nosworthy says she “[gathered] up the residents from all the halls and [got] everyone together while [they headed] to get shelter on campus.” People all over the state struggled to do the same- and when it came to phone calls, the lines were unsurprisingly busy as many found that they were unable to reach their loved ones. With a stroke of luck, Nosworthy was able to contact her family, but stated that “saying ‘bye’ to them was so unreal that [she] could not do it.” Within the first few minutes of the alert being sent out, most government officials were aware that it had been accidental. As for the rest of the public, it took a bit longer. The few that did know about the accident took to social media to spread the word, but unfortunately, their reassurance went unnoticed or otherwise wasn’t believed.

Exactly 38 minutes later, a second alert was issued, this time in a calmer tone: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawai`i. Repeat. False Alarm.” Everyone in the state of Hawai`i breathed out a huge sigh of relief. But there was one pressing question that was demanding to be answered: how did this happen?

It began within the Hawai`i Emergency Management Agency. During a routine drill, the man in charge of sending the alert accidentally selected the option that would send out the emergency alert to the public, instead of choosing the one that would only be sent internally to others practicing the drill. What was supposed to be standard procedure turned out to be a chaotic mess. After the selection, it was sent to all phones in the state of Hawai`i, residents and vacationers alike, as well as television sets and radio broadcasters. At the time of the incident, there was no such button that could cancel this message from being sent out.

To explain what went wrong in more simple terms: the system is designed with a series of pre-constructed messages including that of a real ballistic missile scenario. The creator, however, had not anticipated a situation in which this message would be sent out accidentally, and thus did not add an option to relay a message of false alarm.

In this way, the incident became a sort of mixed blessing. The Hawai`i Emergency Management Agency now knows that there are problems with their immediate emergency system and can identify how to fix these errors. For example, it should not have taken so long for the false alarm alert to be issued. Officials say that this will be fixed for the future, as well as adding a cancellation template.

Carol Comper, a student at UH Hilo, adds that she doesn’t think there should be just one person in charge of sending theses alerts. “It should require the confirmation of at least two people before being able to be sent out,” she says.

As for the man who was responsible for causing the hysteria, the Hawai`i Emergency Management Agency will not say, and are leaving him unidentified at the moment. The head of the agency, Vern Miyagi, has stated in several press conferences that the man “feels terrible,” and assures the public that he has been reassigned, although not fired. Nosworthy hopes that the next person to hold this job “will get the correct training so a mistake like this doesn’t happen again.”

For those who are still wondering what to do if this threat were ever to be real in the future, there is another article in this issue of Ke Kalahea that denotes exactly how to stay calm and safe. The University of Hawai`i News also sent out an email on Jan. 22 to all UH students, addressing that “there has been some confusion by some regarding where to go and what to do upon and after the alert.”. The email also reminds that a missile attack is rather unlikely, “but everyone still needs to be aware, informed, and prepared.”