Hawaii Missile Crisis: What Went Wrong and What Needs to Happen

January 24th, 2018 by CHHS RAs

By CHHS Extern Kirby McMahon

Photo Credit: Alison Teal/AFP/Getty Images

On January 13, 2018 at 8:07 a.m. local time, the state of Hawaii was sent into a panic, as residents received an alert of an imminent ballistic missile threat. The alert was sent out through the Emergency Alert System and was broadcast via television, radio, and cellphones throughout the state. Residents were informed that the alert was not a drill and were advised to take shelter. It was not until 8:45 a.m. local time, 38 minutes later, that residents were informed that the alert of an incoming ballistic missile was a false alarm. The circumstances surrounding the false alarm have generated substantial criticism over how the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency responded to the situation.


First and foremost, the false alarm that preceded the ensuing chaos, is an inherent failure in emergency management. The question must be asked, how was this false alarm allowed to occur in the first place? The answer lies in the outdated interface of the computer program used to send notices of alarms and drills. When selecting the appropriate alert to send out, the program presents the operator with a drop-down menu replete with cluttered alert options. These options range from options explicitly spelled out, to an array of alerts utilizing shorthand abbreviations. This chaotic operating system made it possible to send out a false alarm and send the state into a panic with only two misplaced clicks.

The first change that must be made in response to the missile scare is a change in operating system. The catalyst of the terror that gripped Hawaii was caused by nothing more than human error. The false alarm was sent out by one employee operating a cluttered and convoluted operating system. As such, it is crucial that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency install a system that prevents human error, and requires a deliberate effort to send out the appropriate alert. Hawaii cannot afford to allow a few misplaced clicks to send the state into a panic once more. In the days since the missile scare, Hawaii has implemented a two-person verification system. This is a positive change that will help to prevent human error. However, in order to fully eliminate the risk of human error causing another false alarm, Hawaii must also change the operating system that enables and exacerbates human error.


Not only did the alarm send shockwaves across Hawaii, but the alarm was not rescinded for 38 minutes. By contrast, a Japanese false alarm that was sent out three days later was rescinded after only five minutes. The delay in Hawaii was enabled by a failure to understand and follow the protocol governing the situation. Twenty three minutes after the false alarm was sounded, officials from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called FEMA for approval to rescind the false alarm. It then took another 15 minutes after the call to FEMA before the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency rescinded the alarm. However, FEMA has stated that Hawaii did not need approval to rescind the alert. Rather, Hawaii has had the authority to rescind warnings and alerts since 2012. Yet, Hawaiian officials waited over 20 minutes to call FEMA to ask for approval that they did not need, and then waited another 15 minutes before finally rescinding the alert. The alarm could have been cancelled within minutes if officials had known the proper protocol.

Thus, it is crucial that Hawaii implement a more robust training system so that officials understand how to act in the event of a false alarm. With the power to send out alerts that are capable of instantly sending the public into a hysteria, officials needed to be prepared for all possible situations, including a false missile alert. This training must ensure that officials are capable of quickly rescinding any false alert, and that officials know which authorities they need or do not need to consult with in case of a false alert. A more robust training regimen will eliminate the confusion and doubt that surrounded the recent false alert, and ensure officials are capable of swiftly eliminating any future false alerts.


Immediately after the missile alert was sent out, telling residents to take cover, chaos ensued. Senator Brian Schatz recalled how “[p]eople were terrified, children were sheltering in place in locker rooms, people were crying, businesses were shutting down.” Elsewhere, children took cover in manholes and drivers pulled to the side of the road and took shelter along the highway. While others began saying their final goodbyes and preparing for survival after a nuclear attack. This vast array of responses is due to Hawaii’s failure to prepare the public on how to act in the event of a ballistic missile attack or a similar catastrophic event. People were told to take shelter.  However, Hawaii has very few shelters and homes with basements. Forms of adequate shelter were hard to come by, and people had to make due with what they had nearby. Not only is there a distinct lack of emergency shelters in Hawaii, but because people did not know what to do, they wasted time taking shelter. With ballistic missiles capable of reaching Hawaii in a matter of minutes, it is imperative that the public is well-drilled in how to act in the event that a missile has been fired. The false alarm has proven that Hawaii has failed to prepare its citizens for the threat of a missile attack.

Given that most emergency management officials in Hawaii appeared unsure of how to deal with the false alarm, it is unsurprising that civilians were unsure of how to act with what appeared to be a legitimate threat of a ballistic missile. However, in the event that an actual missile has been fired, there must be a plan for the public to follow. Residents cannot be expected to learn how to act in the time between the alert and the arrival of the missile. Hawaii must educate its citizens on when, where, and how to shelter. Furthermore, Hawaii must utilize its emergency broadcast system to continually provide updates. These updates could range from the expected location that the missile will land, the best places to shelter, or any locations to avoid during the alert. Lastly, while Hawaii has a shortage of emergency shelters, Hawaii must ensure that available shelters are easily identifiable and accessible. Moreover, given the tense political climate, Hawaii may want to consider building additional fallout shelters for its citizens.

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