From time to time here in Columbus we’ll get an “amber alert” to our smartphones asking us to be on the lookout for a particular car, or a “serious weather alert” notifying us that tornadoes have been spotted in the surrounding area.
Imagine feeling a vibration, looking at your phone, and seeing an alert like this: “Emergency Alert. BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Hawaii residents received that very message on their phones yesterday morning, producing about 30 minutes of terror, panic, and mass confusion until emergency officials notified everyone that the alert was a mistake. Hawaii officials went to social media to notify people of the error after about 15 minutes, and eventually put up messages on highway road signs to let people know about the mistake, but it took 38 minutes for the officials to send a follow-up text to the people who received the first alert to advise them that missiles weren’t going to be raining down on the islands.
How did such a colossal blunder happen? Hawaii officials say that, during a drill, one person pushed the wrong button. Several months ago the state emergency management agency instituted a program to periodically test a program to alert Hawaii residents to a possible attack from North Korea, and the false alarm message apparently went out to the public during a “shift change.” Hawaii now says that, when it is doing future drills, it will have two employees involved rather than just one. (Hey, Hawaii — why not make it three employees, just to be on the safe side?)
It’s one of those bizarre, hard-to-believe stories about our governmental institutions that leave you shaking your head and wondering if we’re being told the whole story. So, before yesterday, Hawaii left it up to one person to decide whether to send a message to everyone in the state about an impending nuclear missile attack, and there was no “fail safe” element built into the program to make absolutely certain that the right message went out? And how would a “shift change” contribute to the mistake? Could it really be that one employee of the Hawaiian emergency management agency would leave in the midst of a drill because his/her shift ended, and leave it up to the incoming employee to figure out which message to send? Could employees of an emergency management agency, of all places, really have that kind of clock-in, clock-out mentality?
It’s no wonder that X-Files-like conspiracy theories immediately surfaced, with some people contending that there actually was a missile attack that was successfully thwarted, and the government just didn’t wanted people to know about it, and others claiming that the state’s emergency management system must have been hacked.
I feel sorry for the people of Hawaii who enduring long minutes of panic and worry that they were facing imminent obliteration. Obviously, we deserve better from our governmental officials — but the Hawaii issue makes you wonder how many other states have similarly ill-considered, poorly staffed programs that might send false alarms out to unsuspecting citizens.