It appears Hawaii did not have safeguards in place to prevent false alerts about a missile strike, according to the US Federal Communications Commission.
- False alarm was second recent blunder after problems with siren test
- Early indications are that Hawaii did not have safeguards in place, FCC says
- Homeland Security says people should trust alert systems despite the "very unfortunate mistake"
The second recent blunder in Hawaii's planning for a possible North Korean nuclear attack left islanders shaken after an emergency alert warning of an imminent strike sounded on hundreds of thousands of mobile phones on Saturday (local time).
The scare came after testing of Cold War-era sirens ran into problems last month.
For nearly 40 minutes on Saturday, people waited before a second mobile alert came; someone hit the wrong button, there was no missile.
Missile false alarm timeline:
- 8.05am: Workers initiate routine test of the emergency alert system.
- 8.07am: A worker mistakenly hits the button to send the emergency warning.
- 8.10am: The head of the Emergency Management Agency, state adjutant general Major General Joe Logan, confirms with US Pacific Command that there was no missile launch. Honolulu police are notified of the false alarm.
- 8.13am: The state issues a cancellation that prevents the message from being sent to phones that hadn't previously received the alert, such as those turned off or out of coverage range.
- 8.20am: The Emergency Management Agency issues public notification of cancellation on Facebook and Twitter.
- 8.24am: Governor David Ige retweets the cancellation notice.
- 8.30am: Mr Ige posts cancellation notice on his Facebook page.
- 8.45am: Cancellation of warning sent to mobile phones: "There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm." The state said it issued the cancellation after getting authorisation to do so from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
(All times local)
Source: Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, via AP
FCC chairman Ajit Pai said an investigation was well under way and officials were gathering facts about how the false alert was issued.
"Based on the information we have collected so far, 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," Mr Pai said in a statement.
However, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said people should trust government alert systems and the Hawaii blunder was just a "very unfortunate mistake".
Ms Nielsen told Fox News Sunday she would hate for anybody not to abide by government warnings. She said the alerts were vital and didn't want anyone to "draw the wrong conclusion".
'This is not a drill'
Some people abandoned cars on the highway and others gathered inside their homes to wait for what seemed like the inevitable, a blast that would cause widespread death and destruction.
The message sent statewide just after 8am Saturday read: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's administrator, Vern Miyagi, said he took responsibility for the mistake. He said officials would study the error to make sure it did not happen again.
The state adjutant general, Major General Joe Logan, said a written report would be prepared. State politicians announced they would hold a hearing next Friday.
The backlash from politicians was swift.
Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki said the system Hawaii residents had been told to rely on failed miserably.
"Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations," he said in a statement.
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was "totally inexcusable".
"There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process," he wrote.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no threat about 10 minutes after the initial alert, but that didn't reach people who aren't on the social media platform. A mobile alert informing of the false alarm didn't reach mobile phones until about 40 minutes later.
Problems with siren test last month
With the threat of missiles from North Korea on people's minds, the state reintroduced the Cold War-era warning siren tests last month that drew international attention. But there were problems there, too.
Even though the state says nearly 93 per cent of the islands' 386 sirens worked properly during the December test, 12 mistakenly played an ambulance siren. In the tourist hub of Waikiki, the sirens were barely audible, prompting officials to add more sirens there and reposition ones already in place.
Mary Hirose was with her children at an ice skating arena in Honolulu when the alert came.
"Here, there is nothing you can do," she said. So, she grabbed her four children held them close, listened to the news and hoped for the best.
She questioned why it took so long to send out the all-clear and why they tweeted before sending a mobile push alert.
Hawaii officials apologised repeatedly and said the alert was sent when someone hit the live alert button instead of an internal test button during a shift change.
"Today is a day that most of us will never forget," said Hawaii Governor David Ige. "A day when many in our community thought that our worst nightmare might actually be happening. A day when many frantically tried to think about the things that they would do if a ballistic missile launch would happen."
The agency did not have a plan for a false alarm in place, officials said.
Cars abandoned on highway
On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after panicked drivers ran to a nearby tunnel for shelter, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen fearing the worst.
Professional golfer Colt Knost, staying at Waikiki Beach during a PGA Tour event, said "everyone was panicking" in the lobby of his hotel.
"Everyone was running around like, 'What do we do?'" he said.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the incident was "purely" a state matter.