The accidental ballistic missile warning that terrified Hawaii residents earlier this month was due to a confusing user interface, right? Maybe not.
According to a Tuesday FCC report, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) employee who sent the erroneous alert did so because he or she thought the island was in fact under attack. How? Miscommunication and a confusing phone call.
As the FCC report outlines, HEMA has been “actively testing its alert and warning capabilities over the past year.” On Jan. 13, the midnight shift conducted a ballistic missile defense drill without incident. The midnight shift supervisor then decided to do another test with the day shift to get them used to the system during a busier part of the day.
When the day shift supervisor arrived, the midnight shift operator told the day shift supervisor verbally that a test was going to happen, but the day shift supervisor thought that meant another midnight test later on. As a result, the day shift supervisor wasn’t nearby when the day shift staff had to deal with the incoming drill.
What happened next is the ballistic missile version of Who’s on First.
At 8:05 a.m., the midnight shift supervisor initiated the drill by placing a call to the day shift warning officers, pretending to be U.S. Pacific Command. The supervisor played a recorded message over the phone. The recording began by saying “exercise, exercise, exercise,” language that is consistent with the beginning of the script for the drill. After that, however, the recording did not follow the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s standard operating procedures for this drill. Instead, the recording included language scripted for use in an Emergency Alert System message for an actual live ballistic missile alert. It thus included the sentence “this is not a drill.” The recording ended by saying again, “exercise, exercise, exercise.” Three on-duty warning officers in the agency’s watch center received this message, simulating a call from U.S. Pacific Command on speakerphone.
Apparently, the employee who sent the alert heard “this is not a drill” but not “exercise, exercise, exercise.” By 8:07 a.m., this person had blasted the alert out to everyone in Hawaii.
Other employees were not confused by the call; “they knew that the erroneous incoming message did not indicate a real missile threat, but was supposed to indicate the beginning of an exercise. Specifically, they heard the words: ‘exercise, exercise, exercise,'” the report said.
“The individual who transmitted the false alert has refused to speak with us,” according to the FCC. So the agency can’t “fully evaluate the credibility of their assertion.” But “based on our investigation to date, the Bureau believes that a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to this false alert.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events
According to the FCC, a drop-down menu on the HEMA system includes the live- and test- alert templates. There’s also an “Are you sure that you want to send this Alert?” pop-up that appears before an alert goes out.
But the software “did not differentiate between the testing environment and the live alert production environment,” according to the FCC. “Hawaii’s alert origination software allowed users to send both live alerts and test alerts using the same interface, and the same log-in credentials, after clicking a button that simply confirmed ‘Are you sure you want to send this alert?'”
There’s also no system in place to prevent one person from sending out the alert. Had this required a two-person team to execute, the alert likely wouldn’t have gone out.
Hawaii also appeared to be doing a large number of drills without warning, upping the chance of a mistake.
“While other emergency management agencies use no-notice drills under special circumstances, their common practice is to schedule drills in advance for a set date and time,” the FCC concluded.
Going forward, the FCC said, “supervisors must receive advance notice of all future drills.” The system will also “require two credentialed warning officers to sign in and validate the transmission of every alert and test.” And there is now a “false alert correction template” so a second alert can go out in the event an error ever occurs again.
For now, though, ballistic missile defense drills are on hold at HEMA pending the conclusion of the agency’s own investigation.