When I was a small child, my parents told me they were going to go for a walk. I was super-busy watching “Sesame Street” and so did not really hear them. No big deal, except for the fact that the Emergency Broadcast System decided to conduct a test while my folks were away. My 5-year old self had never heard it before. The alarm sound scared me so much that I missed the “this is only a test” part. My parents not being anywhere in sight did not improve my mood.
To this day, my heart rate goes up a little when I hear that alert sound. So I can only imagine how 5-year-olds in Hawaii coped with an alert that seemed quite real for close to 40 minutes because of a disturbingly simple error made by a Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) official. Multiple first-person reports reveal that a lot of people in Hawaii freaked the hell out.
People not in Hawaii are freaking out as well. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai does not sound happy:
“The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable,” the chairman said. “It caused a wave of panic across the state — worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert was issued.”
Pai added the false alerts, believed to have been caused by human error, “undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies.”
The New York Times’ Max Fisher goes even further, likening the false alarm to an extremely tense moment during the Cold War:
Nuclear experts are warning, using some of their most urgent language since President Trump took office, that Hawaii’s false alarm, in which state agencies alerted locals to a nonexistent missile attack, underscores a growing risk of unintended nuclear war with North Korea.
To understand the connection, which might not be obvious, you need to go back to the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 ….
Though it was quickly evident that the downing had been a mistake, mutual distrust and the logic of nuclear deterrence — more so than the deaths themselves — set Washington and Moscow heading toward a conflict neither wanted.
The story illustrated how imperfect information, aggressive defense postures and minutes-long response times brought both sides hurtling toward possible nuclear war — a set of dynamics that can feel disconcertingly familiar today.
This all sounds very scary. Marry this to the Trump White House’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea, and the Department of Defense’s enhanced readiness to act against Pyongyang, and I understand the Category Five Freakout this event has triggered.
So let us take a moment to focus on the good news that this false alarm has generated — and I would argue it has generated a surprising amount of good news.
First, and most important, was that Hawaii did not descend into chaos. The Atlantic’s Alia Wong focuses on the sheer terror the alert created, but also noted that, “As of Sunday, there haven’t been any official reports of deaths or injuries attributed to Saturday’s emergency alert.” Think about this for a second: Residents of an entire state were told by authorities that the world as they knew it might be coming to an end. It is extraordinary that this account from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser contains the worst breakdown of law and order that I have seen from the event:
Celeste Russell was driving near the 7-Eleven in Waimanalo.
“There was a red light and people were beeping their horns for people to go through it, instead of stopping, because obviously, they wanted to get home themselves. So it was bad,” she said.
That’s actually not that bad!! This was partly due to the time of the alert (a little after 8 in the morning on a weekend) and partly due to the lack of supporting evidence for an actual attack (no air-raid sirens). Still, there was no breakdown in social order. No grocery stores or hardware stores or any stores whatsoever appear to have been looted.
This is important to stress, because it represents a sharp contrast with how situations like this tend to be fictionalized. As someone who has argued that certain genres have exaggerated the fragility of society, it is a nice piece of confirming evidence.
A related piece of good news is that, in contrast to Fisher’s concerns, there is no evidence that North Korea was provoked by the Hawaii alert. This might be due to luck. It might be due to the recent thaw in North-South Korean relations. It could also be that the alert was not offensive in nature. Or it could mean, as Michael Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders have argued, that the Korean peninsula is not quite the hair-trigger situation that
yours truly some have suggested.
The most important piece of good news, however, is that this mistake will lead to improvements in the system. As The Washington Post’s Amy Wang notes, Hawaii’s state system is already taking measures to make sure this does not happen again:
“In the past there was no cancellation button. There was no false alarm button at all,” [HEMA spokesman Richard] Rapoza said. “Now there is a command to issue a message immediately that goes over on the same system saying ‘It’s a false alarm. Please disregard.’ as soon as the mistake is identified.”
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said it has also suspended all internal drills until the investigation is completed. In addition, it has put in place a “two-person activation/verification rule” for tests and actual missile launch notifications. On Saturday, Ripoza said, the employee was asked in the computer program to confirm that he wanted to send the message. In the future, a second person will be required for confirmation.
The agency said it would issue a preliminary report of findings and corrective actions next week.
As a diminutive Jedi once noted a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” This isn’t even the first failure in Hawaii since restarting these alerts. The failure in this case will hopefully lead to the system being less likely to fail in the future. As the Atlantic’s Wong notes:
“This is probably going to be the single greatest learning experience that any state has ever had in trying to figure out how to respond to an immediate threat,” [state representative Chris Lee] said, noting that the emergency system has never been tested like it was on Saturday. Now, he said, all the researchers and scientists and government officials designing disaster plans have a huge “treasure trove of data about what really works, how people respond, how we can save infinitely more lives than we could in the past.”
Finally, there is Trump. After more than a day, he addressed the situation on Sunday night, saying, “That was a state thing, but we are going to now get involved with them. I love that they took responsibility. They took total responsibility. But we are going to get involved. Their attitude and their — I think it is terrific. They took responsibility. They made a mistake.”
God help me, I know the bar for presidential leadership has been set super-low with Donald Trump. I agree with Bump that in a perfect world, the president would have used his social media profile to calm frayed nerves the day of the scare.
Let’s be honest, however: There are so many ways Trump could have made the situation worse, and his actual response was not awful. He is right that state leaders have taken responsibility. Hawaiian officials also deserve credit for not immediately crucifying the person responsible for triggering the alert. Since it seems like the system was vulnerable to such a simple mistake, one hopes that attitude persists despite calls for the person’s head.
The omnipresent concern about nuclear brinksmanship is that mistakes combined with rapid-reaction systems can trigger an accidental war. That did not happen in this case, and the likelihood of it happening in the future will be reduced. No one got hurt or killed from this mistake.
As failures go, what happened in Hawaii was a success.