Learning from Hawaii’s mistake

Published Jan 20, 2018 at 4:00pm

“This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”

If you grew up in the Cold War era, you’re familiar with those words and the sound that followed them: a 20-second “beep.” TV and radio stations were required to conduct those tests regularly in preparation for a nuclear attack (although the system also was used to warn communities of severe weather).

Recently, the state of Hawaii attempted to conduct a similar test of its emergency notification system. Only it failed to notify residents that it was only a test.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” read the message sent to television and radio, as well as cell phones.

That’s a genuine heart-stopping moment given the tensions between the United States and North Korea, whose nuclear missiles are capable of reaching not only Hawaii, but also the U.S. mainland. Many residents and tourists receiving the alert panicked. In the 38 minutes it took to issue a correction, people scrambled for shelter, broke down crying, called loved ones to tell them goodbye. Video showed a father coaxing his daughter to hide in a storm drain.

Speculation for the cause of the false alarm was rampant. Was it a prank? A mechanical failure? It turned out to be more prosaic: A state employee charged with conducting the test inadvertently clicked on the wrong drop-down menu on his computer -- he had a choice between “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” That’s ... not quite the same as mistaking “copy” for “paste.”

Afterwards, the state announced the employee responsible for the error was being “reassigned,” not fired, which makes you wonder what it takes to lose your job there.

However, it’s not the first such false alarm. On Feb. 20, 1971 (also a Saturday morning), a teletype operator at the National Emergency Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado played the wrong tape during a test. That sent an activation alert that was authenticated with a correct code word through the entire nationwide system, ordering stations to cease regular programming and broadcast the alert of a national emergency. About 40 minutes later a “kill” message was sent out, again with the correct code word, to notify stations a mistake had been made.

That 1971 mistake launched several investigations that led to changes in the EBS. (In 1997, the EBS was replaced by the current Emergency Alert System.) Every state should examine its procedures to ensure there are safeguards to prevent careless mistakes.

The danger isn’t just that a false alarm can ignite panic, which could endanger public safety. It’s that it doesn’t take many cries of wolf before people start ignoring them -- which could be fatal if the real thing happens.