Making mistakes is human nature and something we all do, especially while at work. However, with some jobs, the stakes are too high for mistakes to be made.
In January of 2018, an employee in Hawaii made a simple mistake after there was a miscommunication between him and a supervisor. In most other cases, that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Yet he ended up losing his job over the mistake because of the widespread chaos that it caused throughout Hawaii.
Waking Up to a Nightmare
Each day, the residents and tourists in Hawaii get to wake up in absolute paradise. However, on the morning of January 13, 2018, the people who call Hawaii home and those who were just visiting woke up to a literal nightmare thanks to a message that was sent out throughout the state.
Just after eight in the morning, a state-wide alert was sent out to phones and televisions from Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency. According to the alert, a ballistic missile was headed straight for the islands of Hawaii. Naturally, everyone panicked.
Not a Drill
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the alert that was plastered to phone screen across the state read. Normally, everyone would have just ignored the message. Then again, most emergency messages are just tests. This one clearly was not.
Hawaii Erupts In Chaos
Thinking a missile was heading straight their way, everyone acted accordingly and Hawaii erupted into chaos. In the minutes that followed, most people frantically searched for shelter. They also contacted their loved ones to say their goodbyes thinking they didn’t have much time left.
“It was mass chaos – people getting out of cars and running and looking at the sky. Our cousin was in the airport and people were sobbing,” a text message read that an MSNBC producer received from a friend whose relatives had been caught in traffic when the alert was sent out.
What made it all worse was the fact that many people didn’t know what to do or where to go in such a situation. “I was running through all the scenarios in my head, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to pull over to,” Mike Staskow, a retired military captain, told The New York Times. Some people frantically searched online for what to do to survive a missile attack.
Many others were forced to make the impossible decision of choosing who they would spend their final moments with since not all their loved ones were in the same place. “I was sitting in the bathtub with my children, saying our prayers,” Matt LoPresti, a state representative, told CNN. “We took it as seriously as a heart attack.”
An Impossible Choice
“I chose to go home to the two little ones I figured it was the largest grouping of my family. Knowing I likely wouldn’t make it home in time,” Gene Park, a social media editor from The Washington Post, shared from a text message he received from a friend. According to the man, his family members were spread out around the island and he knew he wouldn’t be able to reach many of them in time.
During that time, however, Hawaii state officials and Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency took to their social media accounts to ease people’s fears. According to Twitter and Facebook posts, the warning was actually just a drill. As a result, people across the state who saw the warning were confused and didn’t know what to believe.
38 Minutes Later
For those 38 minutes, residents and tourists had no idea if they were really about to be hit by a missile attack. It wasn’t until 8:45 a.m. that another alert was sent out to everyone’s phones. This time, the message said that there was no threat.
According to Hawaii Governor David Ige, the false alarm was the result of a simple mistake. Ige explained that an employee mistakenly pressing the wrong button during a shift change at the Emergency Management Agency. Understandably, most people throughout Hawaii were furious.
Not only were people mad that such a traumatizing mistake was made, but they were also furious about how long it took officials to notify them that a mistake had been made. “Why does it take 38 minutes for us to get a false alarm notice? … That’s completely unacceptable,” a citizen told CNN.
The Investigation Begins
In the wake of the false alarm, officials vowed to investigate the incident. They also promised residents that it would never happen again. “We’ve implemented change already to assure that it becomes a redundant process so that it won’t be a single individual [responsible for issuing alerts],” Ige said in a statement. “There’ll be at least two people that would be involved to initiate the alert.”
During the investigation that followed, however, officials learned that the message hadn’t been because of an employee clicking the wrong button. Federal investigators discovered that the employee, who has since been fired, believed that a surprise ballistic missile defense drill at a shift change was real.
The Confusing Recording
According to the investigation, a shift supervisor at the agency played a recording over the phone to officers on duty during the surprise drill. The recording began with the words “EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE,” but also included the words “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Following His Training
As a result, the officer sent out the warning. “I did what I was trained to do,” the worker, whose name has not been revealed to the media, told NBC. According to the man, he didn’t hear anything in the recording about it being an exercise. However, five other employees who also heard the recording claimed they heard the warning that the transmission was a drill.
A Flawed System
When the man realized his mistake, he immediately understood the gravity of the situation as frantic citizens called in trying to verify the alert. However, the man wasn’t entirely to blame. The system didn’t require the officer to double check with anyone or get approval from a supervisor.
Fixing The Problems
“We weren’t prepared to send out missile notifications. I think the military should do that,” the former employee told NBC. “I regret this ever happened. I feel terrible about it. I did what I thought was right at the time.” After the investigation, officials also announced that other safeguards have been put in place to prevent a similar mistake in the future.
Addressing The Delay
According to officials, the delay in notifying the public of the false alarm was because the supervisor on duty had to log into the system and manually go through the steps to send out another notification to phones. That issue has also been addressed.
A Tremendous Teaching Moment
“It’s quite extraordinary, in those 38 minutes we got a really good sense of what actually would happen if those events were occurring,” Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told NBC about what he called a “tremendous teaching moment.” Redlener hoped the experience would make people more prepared about what to do and create a plan for a nuclear disaster since the information is out there.