(CN) – A Hawaii state worker who sent an emergency message about an imminent missile attack thought an actual attack was occurring, according to report issued today by the federal government.
Despite being prefaced by language indicating it was an exercise, an emergency message intended as a drill for staff at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was incorrectly interpreted as real, leading the agency spread the false alarm about a missile attack that caused widespread panic throughout the islands on Jan. 13.
The worker who sent the alarm either failed to hear or failed to heed the words “exercise, exercise, exercise” that preceded and followed the practice message warning of an incoming missile attack, according to the Federal Communications Commission report issued Tuesday morning.
The worker has since been fired. A second agency worker quit before disciplinary action could be taken, and a third was suspended without pay over the incident. And on Tuesday, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency chief Vern Miyagi stepped down.
But the report also singled out insufficient supervision during the drill, the inappropriate inclusion of the phrase “this is not a drill” in the practice message and a lack of planning for the possibility of a false alarm.
“The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible alert,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Otherwise, people won’t take alerts seriously and respond appropriately when a real emergency strikes and lives are on the line.”
At 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 13, the state of Hawaii sent out a message saying there was an incoming ballistic missile headed toward the island chain. The message advised residents to seek shelter and concluded with “This is not a drill.”
The message was received by thousands of Hawaiian residents, inciting widespread panic.
Motorists were reported to have driven at speeds over 100 mph to take shelter in highway tunnels. In some areas, tourists were jammed into concrete bunkers, people dove into manholes and several people placed phone calls and sent texts to relatives believing they were delivering their last words.
In its report, the FCC revealed the underlying miscommunication happened as a result of a shift change. After the midnight supervisor told the incoming supervisor about the plan to conduct a ballistic missile preparedness drill, the day supervisor thought the drill was only going to apply to the night shift, leading to the lack of supervision.
Instead, the agency began the drill at 8 a.m.
The drill includes a simulated message intended to resemble a message sent by the U.S. Pacific Command. In this case, it included the language “This is not a drill.”
The report concludes the language and lack of supervision are reasons why the unnamed worker thought an attack was imminent. However, it also notes that other emergency workers did not think the warning was real and clearly heard the phrases before and after the message pretending to be U.S. Pacific Command.
The FCC also criticized how the state agency reacted to the initial message dissemination, noting it took the agency a full five minutes to cancel the submission of the missile warning.
Furthermore, despite being notified at 8:07 a.m., Hawaii Governor David Ige was not able to retweet a message from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency until 8:24 a.m., because – as he later admitted – he had forgotten his Twitter password.
The agency did not post on its social media accounts that the message was a false alarm until 8:20 a.m., a full 13 minutes after the false alarm was sent out.
“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” Pai said. “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.”
Ige has appointed Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii's deputy adjutant general, to review emergency management protocol and to institute reforms.
The FCC said the report is only preliminary and that it will issue a final report in weeks to come along with recommendations for all states about how to avoid similar incidents.