Let's not do that again: FCC to look into Hawaii's mistaken missile alert

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said Sunday that Hawaii apparently did not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent a false emergency alert and that government officials must work to prevent future incidents.

Jim Carrey, Jamie Lee Curtis and Montel Williams call out Trump for stoking fear about nuclear threat

A highway median sign broadcasts a message of "There is no threat" in Kaneohe, Hawaii. State emergency officials mistakenly sent out an emergency alert Saturday, warning of an imminent missile strike. (Jhune Liwanag/Associated Press)

The head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said Sunday that Hawaii apparently did not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent a false emergency alert and that government officials must work to prevent future incidents.

The FCC "will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again," chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement after Saturday's errant ballistic missile warning to Hawaii residents.

"Federal, state and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what's necessary to fix them."
The mistaken alert, sent to mobile phones and aired on television and radio shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday, was issued amid high international tensions over North Korea's development of ballistic nuclear weapons. It said: "Emergency alert. Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

'Absolutely unacceptable'

"The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable," Pai said. "It caused a wave of panic across the state ... Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies."

This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday. (Jennifer Kelleher/The Associated Press)

Gov. David Ige told a news conference Saturday he was "angry and disappointed" over the incident, apologized for it and said the state would take steps to ensure it never happens again.

Ige said the alert was sent during a employee shift change at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and that the state had no automated process to get out the word that it was a false alarm.

"An employee pushed the wrong button," Ige said.

Vern Miyagi, the agency's administrator declined to say what action would be taken against the employee.

Vern Miyagi, administrator of Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, left, and Hawaii Gov. David Ige address the media on Saturday following a false alarm of a missile launch on Hawaii. (George F. Lee/The Star-Advertiser via Associated Press)

Miyagi said the agency routinely tests its emergency alert system and that the employee thought he was conducting a test, not realizing he had transmitted the warning with a two-step process on a computer screen until receiving it on his own cellphone minutes later.

Celebrities respond on Twitter

But on Twitter, some celebrities looked past the employee who pushed the button and laid blame on U.S. President Donald Trump for increasing fears about nuclear war.

Jim Carrey, who was in Hawaii at the time of alert, called it a "psychic warning" and seemed to blame Trump, calling him a "one-man Gomorrah" and berating his Republican congress for "alienating the world" and heading for "suffering beyond all imagination."

Stacey Bow, 56, of Honolulu, said she received the emergency alert on her cellphone. She awakened her 16-year-old daughter with the news. "She became hysterical, crying, you know, just lost it," she said.​

Actor Jamie Lee Curtis said Trump should blame himself for the fear that families felt.

Others expressed doubt about the story that a single employee had pushed the wrong button. Comedian and producer Judd Apatow said he didn't buy it, and indicated it would lead to conspiracy theories.

Employee feels 'terrible'

"There is a screen that says, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" Miyagi said, adding that the employee "feels terrible about it."

Miyagi, who took responsibility for the incident, said the mistake "should have been caught.

"This will not happen again," he added.

Bow said of the person responsible for issuing the alert, "I imagine that person is clearing out their desk right now. You don't get a do-over for something like that."

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials work at the department's command centre in Honolulu on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. The state was the first to bring back Cold War-era siren warning systems, Hawaii emergency management officials said when they tested sirens on that day. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which has jurisdiction over the emergency alert system, announced it was initiating a full investigation.

Earlier this week, before the false alarm, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would vote at its January meeting to enhance the effectiveness of wireless emergency alerts, which have been in place since 2012.

Hawaii, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean, has a population of about 1.4 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and is home to Pacific Command, the Navy's Pacific Fleet and other elements of the American military. Hawaii's economy depends heavily on tourism.

At the news conference with Ige and Miyagi, a Hawaii tourism official expressed concern about the impact the incident might have on attracting visitors to the state.

False alert adds to simmering fears

But the alert only adds fuel to already simmering fears about the threat of nuclear attacks on Hawaii.

North Korean President Kim Jong-un has threatened to unleash his country's growing missile weapon capability against the U.S. territory of Guam or against U.S. states, prompting President Donald Trump to threaten tough action against Pyongyang, including "fire and fury."

Hawaii is among the closest targets for a North Korean attack.

In July, the state of Hawaii released official guidelines on how to survive a nuclear detonation. Instructions include staying sheltered for 14 days or until otherwise advised by local radio reports. People are also advised to expect disruption to cellphone and internet communications systems, as well as water and electricity services.

In November, Hawaii said it would resume monthly statewide testing of Cold War-era nuclear attack warning sirens for the first time in at least a quarter of a century, in preparation for a possible missile strike from North Korea.

Toby Clairmont, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's executive officer, shows new informational materials to a reporter in Honolulu in this July 2017 file photo. Last summer, Hawaii announced a new public education campaign to prepare for the possibility of a ballistic missile strike from North Korea. (Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/The Associated Press)

The governor said some sirens went off on Saturday after the false alarm.

Trump was wrapping up a round of golf at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, when the incident was unfolding. White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said Trump was briefed by aides and that the incident involved was "purely a state exercise."

The president, known for frequent tweets, did not publicly respond to the event. His only tweet on Saturday was a criticism of the Fire and Fury book.

Actor Montel Williams wondered why.

The incident could add to the Trump administration's sense of urgency about North Korea's nuclear threat. Some hawks within the administration believe the United States cannot live with a perpetual North Korean threat and that U.S. military force could be necessary.

The incident could also give fresh impetus to those advocating a peaceful resolution.

With files from CBC News