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US emergency missile alert system fails in Hawaii panicking residents

Significant flaws in the US emergency-alert system emerged after an emergency alert - later called a false alarm - scared residents on Saturday when it warned of an incoming missile attack.

Published: January 14, 2018, 11:37 am

    Honolulu

    The emergency-alert system was expanded following threats to the US by North Korea.

    The incident has exposed significant flaws in the state’s emergency-alert system, which had been overhauled in recent months. State officials could only partly explain why some residents received the alerts while others who had signed up for them, did not.

    At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Vern T. Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the alert was mistakenly triggered during a morning shift change test of the emergency-alert system.

    The emergency alerts system has now been changed to have two people working in tandem, so the same kind of mistake would not happen again, state officials said.

    “We’ve implemented changes already to ensure that it becomes a redundant process, so it won’t be a single individual,” Miyagi explained.

    Miyagi offered no explanation as to why more than half an hour passed before a notification was sent to cellphones that the alert had been a false alarm. He only said the system needed ” more work”.

    “One thing we have to work on more is the cancellation notice,” he said.

    A Hawaii Civil Defense Warning Device in Honolulu Saturday morning, just after 8 a.m. local time, was accidentally hit by a Hawaii state employee. An alert was sent to all cellphones in the state that a ballistic missile was about to strike.

    “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” the alert warned the state’s 1.4 million people. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

    For almost 40 minutes, the residents of Hawaii thought the world was going to end.

    The alert was cancelled six minutes, but the news spread like wildfire, scaring residents who started calling friends and family members “for the last time”. Thirty-eight long minutes passed before state officials sent a new message that said the first alert had been a false alarm.

    By then, panic had swept through the islands.

    A Trump administration official said that although the alert system is federally owned, it had been used on this occasion exclusively by state officials. The Federal Communications Commission said it would investigate the false alarm.

    Hawaii last year reinstalled some 400 attack-warning sirens that had not been in use in the 1980s. The sirens that were installed during World War II are different from those the state uses for tsunami and hurricane warnings.

    But in most places on Saturday, the sirens sounded no warning, contributing to the confusion. Residents found out about the warning at different times via text alert, the radio or calls from friends.

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