Sender of Hawaii’s False Alarm Is Reassigned, but Not Named

Cellphones across Honolulu buzzed on Saturday morning with an erroneous alert about a missile threat. It was not retracted for 38 minutes, and state officials say they can now issue corrected alerts faster.

The Hawaii emergency management employee who set off a statewide panic on Saturday morning by sending out a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile has been temporarily reassigned, but there are no plans to fire him or identify him publicly, a state official said.

The employee, who has worked for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for 10 years, sent the missile alert to cellphones across the state by picking the wrong option on his computer for a routine drill, and then confirming his choice, according to Richard Rapoza, the agency’s public information officer.

“We’re not going to take action till we have all the facts,” Mr. Rapoza said, adding that the employee has been temporarily reassigned to a part of the agency’s emergency operations center where he does not have access to the warning system. Mr. Rapoza declined to describe the employee’s new duties.

During the 38 minutes it took the agency to send a corrective alert rescinding the warning on Saturday, residents and tourists in a state that was already on edge over escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea frantically said their goodbyes and took shelter. Fear turned to anger when the alert turned out to be a false alarm.

Mr. Rapoza said he doubted that the agency would ever publicly identify the employee, who he said “feels terrible, as you can imagine.”

“The reality is, he made a fairly simple mistake, and no one wants to ruin someone’s life because he made a simple mistake,” Mr. Rapoza said. “If his identity was out there, he’d be a pariah.”

The agency has been getting threats in the aftermath of the false alarm, Mr. Rapoza said, but he declined to specify the number or nature of the threats: “We’re not being real specific, as we don’t want to escalate the situation.”

In an op-ed published Monday afternoon on USA Today’s website, Vern Miyagi, the administrator of the state emergency agency, said there was “no excuse” for the false alarm, but he cautioned against seeking “retribution where we should be identifying solutions.”

“Looking at the nature and cause of the error that led to those events, the deeper problem is not that someone made a mistake; it is that we made it too easy for a simple mistake to have very serious consequences,” Mr. Miyagi wrote. “The system should have been more robust, and I will not let an individual pay for a systemic problem.”

The Federal Communications Commission said over the weekend that Hawaii did not have “reasonable safeguards or process controls in place” in its emergency notification process.

Explaining how the employee sent the false alarm, Mr. Rapoza said that the agency’s computer system gave the employee the choice of sending an alert for an internal test drill or sending one for an actual public warning of an impending missile attack.

“There’s a menu, and one selection for a drill, and one for a live alert, and he selected the wrong one,” Mr. Rapoza said. After the employee made that selection, “a standard, confirmatory pop-up” appeared on his computer asking whether the employee was sure he wanted to send the alert, and he confirmed that he did.

Thousands of cellphones immediately buzzed with the warning, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Mr. Rapoza emphasized that the state has already made two immediate changes to its notification system. A second employee must now click the confirmation for any alert that is sent out. And the agency has set up templates in its system that allow it to immediately correct any future mistaken alerts, instead of having to work through the manual steps that slowed the corrective cellphone message on Saturday.

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