People flock to Twitter in an emergency—even a bogus one.
Hawaii, it turns out, has an emergency alert system for incoming ballistic missiles. That system was triggered Saturday morning, pushing notifications to cellphones, as well as broadcast channels, and sending those on the islands scurrying for a safe haven—and to Twitter for updates.
Authorities faced anger and demands for answers Sunday after a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile caused panic in Hawaii, already on edge over fears of a North Korean attack.
The notification was sent out just after 8 a.m. on Saturday, lighting up phones with a disturbing alert urging people to “seek immediate shelter.”
Emergency management officials later admitted “the wrong button was pushed” during a shift change.
The nightmare for islanders—believing they faced annihilation amid escalated tensions between the United States and North Korea—persisted until a correction was issued.
[…] it took nearly 40 minutes for a corrected message to be issued — with Hawaii’s governor saying there was no automatic way to cancel the false alarm, meaning it had to be done manually.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for standards, procedures and testing protocols for the Emergency Alert System that delivered the false alert, promised a “full investigation”.
The overarching response, once the immediate relief subsided, was one of anger.
“Everyone in America needs to understand that if you had to go through this, you would be as angry as I am,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii wrote on social media.
“We’re terrified and angry. Called my parents. Called my sister. Husband and I were shaking, verge of tears. Waited 40 minutes for a correction. No confidence in this emergency alert system,” photographer Aislinn Victoria said on Twitter.
Adventurer Alison Teal called it “the worst moment of my life.”
Residents and visitors took to social media to describe their terror and outrage over the incident, while others away from their Hawaiian homes clamored for accurate information:
Yo anyone else in Hawaii just get a missle threat notification?!
— illtalian (@theilltalian) January 13, 2018
Who else just got a missle threat alert in Hawaii? 😳
— Tyler Yafuso (@tfuso) January 13, 2018
Ballistic Missle attack warning came through the phones in Hawaii – looking for any and all info on this – please send – cant find anything on the news or anywhere. Im stuck in SF and cant get a hold of family.
— Marc Hemeon (@hemeon) January 13, 2018
Officials spread the word that the notification was sent in error:
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
Others tried to boost the signal:
I am on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii the missle defense warning was a false alarm. Officials have confirmed this.
— Jason Parker (@NutzFordBucks) January 13, 2018
I just called up civil defense about the ballistic missle threat to #hawaii they said that it was a mistake.
— William Heyler (@wfh1901) January 13, 2018
I just received this civil defense text message from Hawaii. “This is a Civil Defense Message. Please disregard message of nuclear attack. There is NO THREAT of Missle Launch at this time. I repeat, there is NO THREAT at this time.” WTF!
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) January 13, 2018
Amid the relief was disbelief that such an error could have occurred:
Civil Defense just confirmed that the Ballistic Missle alert to Hawaii was a mistake!!! That is a hell of a mistake to make. #Wow
— 😏 (@jackiedivenere) January 13, 2018
How the government apologized
Investigators later determined that the emergency alert system did not have the necessary safeguards to prevent such an error.
“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,” [FCC Chairman Ajit Pai] said. In determining steps to prevent a rerun “we also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”
Gov. David Ige apologized to everyone affected.
In a press release Sunday evening, Ige issued a lengthy apology for the “unfortunate situation” that “has never happened before and will never happen again.”
“On behalf of the State of Hawai’i, I deeply apologise for this false alert that created stress, anxiety and fear of a crisis in our residents and guests,” Ige said, also apologizing for “any hardship and inconvenience this created for you, your family and loved ones.”
Others communicated that there will be changes to how the emergency alert system is operated in the future.
“We had to double back and work with FEMA [to craft and approve the false alarm alert] and that’s what took time,” [HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza] said.
That has since been remedied, he said, with a cancellation option that can be triggered within seconds of a mistake.
“In the past there was no cancellation button. There was no false alarm button at all,” 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.”
As Hawaiians recover from Saturday’s drama, a credibility problem has emerged for all pros looking to communicate information in a crisis.
Several users on Twitter spoke of their damaged trust for emergency missives:
How to give someone in Hawaii anxiety 101
Step 1: send out an emergency alert of a ballistic missile.
— Tɪᴋᴠᴀʜ (@ttyltm) January 13, 2018
I’m still shaken on what happened this morning in Hawaii. The anxiety of the possible threat of a ballistic missile attack just grew 1000%. I’m not ready to be an orphan.
— Reichal Min (@HumorLitaf) January 14, 2018
Oh my. Please understand that my confidence is challenged. Further I did not receive this message I only received anxiety and panic from others around me whom I love.
— Kevin Chang (@MrChangMusic) January 13, 2018
Just reading that this was false is giving me anxiety https://t.co/kprZIUZ2Kj
— vizual contender™ (@ericmatthewr_) January 13, 2018
Even after reassigning the employee who made the mistake and instituting systemic changes, Hawaii’s emergency services staff faces an uphill battle to regain people’s trust.
What advice would you offer, Ragan/PR Daily readers?
Also, what safeguards does your organization have in place to avoid—or swiftly correct—the spread of false information, whether it originates within or from outside?