On Saturday morning, at 8:07, an Emergency Alert was pushed out to all cellphones in Hawaii that read  ‘BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.’ In some areas, the TV and radio ran a computer-synthesised version – ‘The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.’

It was 38 minutes before a message that retracted the alert was sent.

Lessons learned

In October we reported on how the emergency communication system in place in the Sonoma region in California experienced some glitches during the wildfires that ripped through the area. Knowing what to do in an emergency – especially in an unfamiliar place – can make the difference between life and death.

We have put together an explanation of what happened in Hawaii, links for further information and reading, and some advice on what to do if you, your loved ones or your employees are headed to a region where alerts are in use.

What happened

This was meant to be an internal drill for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. CNN explains:

The officer responsible for the alert mistakenly selected the wrong template during a drill run at shift change. The drill was supposed to involve only those in the agency, Miyagi said, but the selected template, which showed the message that was going to be sent out, was prepared to send the message to the public.

During the drill, the computer asked the officer to confirm it was the message that was supposed to be sent. After clicking “yes,” the message made its way to the entire state, Miyagi said.

The Guardian recounts that there was a ‘one-word difference between the two menu options‘ for a drill and the alert that was sent. This difference ‘was easily overlooked, and there is only one other difference in the system between the test alert and the real thing: a confirmation prompt, which the employee also clicked through.

No template existed for a retraction message, so this had to be created from scratch. A ‘false alarm’ template has since been added to the system. Reuters reports that the Emergency Management Agency ‘now requires two employees to activate the alert system – one to issue the warning and another to confirm it.’

According to the New York Times, the Pacific Command ‘first told Hawaii media that there was no approaching ballistic missile at 8:23 a.m. — about 13 minutes after Hawaii sent out the alert.‘ This was 22 minutes before the retraction message was sent.

These two articles offer more insight into how the monitoring and alert systems are meant to work –


When reading through accounts of how people reacted to the news, the overwhelming theme is that they did not know what to do. Information on where and how to shelter was hard to find. Bosses were unsure of what the correct protocols were.

There are reports on Reddit of blocked freeways and people driving in a dangerous fashion –

It was complete chaos here for about 20 minutes. I immediately left work and drove about 10 mins home and the roadways were crazy. Complete disregard for any traffic law whatsoever. People going 100+ in 45mph zones, running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road – absolute chaos like nothing I’ve seen before. (Source)

And there are many reports of understandable panic and hysteria. At hotels, tourists sheltered in the basements. People ran from the sea and beaches, they huddled in stair wells or their baths, and some tried to gather water and provisions to survive nuclear fall out.

The Honolulu Star Adviser reports that Hawaiian Airlines sent out a message ‘advising its stations to deplane passengers’ and the Sheraton Waikiki evacuated guests into the corridors.


Personal travel

  • Read up on likely alerts and work out what you would do in the case of receiving one.
  • Make sure you have have access to all relevant information and contact details (including travel insurance and consular support), and consider storing this in a secure, offline place.
  • Make sure you communicate your plan and key contact information to your emergency contact.
  • Know that in the case of an emergency, adrenaline is likely to kick in quite quickly. If you feel yourself starting to be overwhelmed, stop and force yourself to take ten slow, deep breaths. This will get oxygen to your brain and enable you to think more clearly.
  • Be aware that other people may panic and not behave rationally or safely.
  • Consider in advance which Twitter users might offer the most relevant and accurate information and follow them in advance.
  • If possible, in the case of a genuine alert, try to find supplies and water. You can fill a bath or large containers with water, and then boil it before drinking.
  • Research other steps you would need to take and make a plan!

Business travel

  • Where possible, make sure your employees are aware of alert systems and how they should respond.
  • Have an agreed communication plan in place, and test it in advance.
  • Include back ups in your plan – ie, if you can’t get through to X on the phone, try Y. If phones don’t work, use a messenger programme.
  • Consider in advance which Twitter users might offer the most relevant and accurate information and follow them in advance. Make sure someone monitors these channels in the case of an emergency.
  • Make sure they have access to all relevant information and contact details (including travel insurance and consular support), and encourage them to store this in a secure, offline place.


Background: Lobbying from telecoms delays testing of emergency alert systems

Motherboard: Hey, Hawaii: The Telecom Industry Lobbied Against Testing for Emergency Alert System

Authorities across the US that have the responsibility of issuing emergency alerts want to test the system. As well as improving the length and geotargeting of alerts, new rules introduced by the FCC in 2016 ‘require telecom companies to offer a testing system for local and state alert originators.‘ However, Verizon and telecom trade organisation CTIA lobbied against this rule, delaying its implementation until March 2019. The piece is well worth a read.


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