Opinions: Hawaii’s false missile alert was an act of recklessness

But we can learn something about emergency preparedness from the threat of disaster


Sending out a false alert and bringing an entire US state into frenzied panic is beyond irresponsible. That’s exactly what happened just after 8 a.m. on Jan. 13 when Hawaiians received a message on their cellphones alerting them that a ballistic missile was heading straight for the island chain. State Governor David Ige learned the alert was false and there was no threat just two minutes after it was sent out, yet it took another 36 minutes for Hawaiians to be updated on the situation. By the time a second message was sent out the damage had been done, causing at least one man to have a heart attack as a result.

We now know that a defence worker triggered the false alarm after pushing the wrong button, but that a false alert of such magnitude could go out by mere accident and not be corrected until over half an hour later was completely irresponsible. Ige called the situation “totally unacceptable.” However, not just Americans, but Canadians and everyone for that matter can take a lesson away from this erroneous mistake. When Hawaiians were told to seek immediate shelter, they had nowhere to go and some even lowered their children into the sewers to protect them. The Cold War may be over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared for the worst possible outcome. Right now, we have nowhere to seek shelter if we are threatened with a nuclear airstrike.

Illustration by Emily Rose

The problem with a false alert that read “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” on everyone’s phones is that it arouses skepticism. There’s danger in a false alarm of such magnitude not only because it has the potential to cause mass hysteria, but also because it’s like the boy who cried wolf, and when there is a real emergency people don’t know whether they can trust the government to give them correct information about a threat.

“False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement issued in the aftermath. The employee who accidentally sent out the signal was let go, and the state Emergency Management Agency has already changed protocol so that two employees are required to send out live alerts.

The false ballistic missile threat that loomed over Hawaii should only highlight just how bad any disaster worldwide can get. CBC reported that authorities drew ire for not issuing a mobile alert when fires raged through Northern California amid concerns it would cause hysteria. Threat or no threat, people will panic. All the same, we can’t wait until nuclear war does break out between the US and North Korea to begin preparing for it or anything else for that matter. Although we aren’t facing any such disaster at the moment, it would be wise to at least think about where we would seek shelter, how long our food supply would last and how much bottled water we’ll have on hand if one day an alert comes and it’s not just a drill.

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