FCC says false missile alert in Hawaii was sent by employee who thought attack was real

The employee who sent a false emergency alert of an incoming missile on Hawaii earlier this month did not realize it was a drill and thought the attack was real, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigators announced on Tuesday.

The Jan. 13 cellphone message sent to residents on the island led to a state-wide panic, with many people believing they had moments to spare before a ballistic missile hit Hawaii. The message told them to "SHELTER IN PLACE" and that "THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

The alert was not corrected for nearly 40 minutes.

FCC investigators on Tuesday blamed the mistake on a miscommunication between the employee who issued it and supervisors who were announcing a drill.  

According to their preliminary report, a supervisor's recorded message included the phrase "exercise, exercise, exercise" but also mistakenly included the phrase "this is not a drill."

A day-shift warning officer, the FCC said, heard the message but not the words "exercise, exercise, exercise" and, believing that it was an actual emergency, issued the false missile alert to the entire state.

ADVERTISEMENT

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a commission hearing said the findings show that Hawaii's emergency agency did not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent false warnings, nor did it have a proper procedure for quickly correcting mistakes.

"Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes," Pai said at an FCC meeting. "Each should ensure that it has adequate safeguards in place to prevent the transmission of false alerts, and each should have a plan in place for how to immediately correct a false alert."

Hawaii officials on Tuesday said that the warning officer who issued the alert had been fired and that the top emergency management official had resigned. The lead state investigator, Bruce Oliveira, said at a press conference that the employee had confused drills for real-world events in the past.

The mistake happened after the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had already conducted a ballistic missile defense drill during the early morning hours that went smoothly.

But later that morning, a night-shift supervisor decided to run another spontaneous drill during a shift change without any advance warning for employees.

The incoming day-shift supervisor believed that the drill would be for the night employees only, and the supervisor was not in place to help properly manage the exercise, investigators said.

While the employee who sent the mistaken message did not realize it was only a drill, other employees told investigators that they understood that the event was a drill.

Officials from the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau noted that they still have not spoken with the employee who sent the alert.

That employee has refused to cooperate with the investigation, though they did receive a written statement from the individual from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Investigators said that because they haven’t been able to speak with the employee, they can’t verify his story, though they said his claim that the message included the phrase “this is not a drill” was accurate.

After the false attack message was sent, emergency officials contacted military and federal officials, Hawaii's governor and the media to clarify that the alert was false. They also canceled retransmission of the alert within minutes, though the report noted that does not trigger a correction of the initial false alert.

Oliveira told reporters that after the officer responsible for issuing the alert realized his mistake, he became confused and another employee had to take over his responsibilities. 

Pai said Tuesday that after the bureau issues its final report, the FCC will work with officials across the country to determine whether the agency needs to intervene.

“The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible alert,” Pai said. “Otherwise, people won’t take alerts seriously and respond appropriately when a real emergency strikes and lives are on the line.”

Read preliminary FCC report by kballuck1 on Scribd

Updated at 12:32 p.m.