The Internet Broke Emergency Alerts

America’s emergency notification systems were first built for war, and then rebuilt for peace. A false alarm in Hawaii shows that they didn’t anticipate how media works in the smartphone era.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test at Vandenberg Air Force Base
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test at Vandenberg Air Force Base (Kyla Gifford / U.S. Air Force / Reuters)

It’s hard to imagine a worse way to be awoken on a Saturday morning in paradise than with a blaring Klaxon accompanying a government alert about an inbound ballistic-missile attack. But that’s exactly what happened to more than 1.5 million people in Hawaii this morning.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” the emergency alert read, in all caps, on smartphones. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Hawaii residents tuned in to television or radio heard an even more threatening message, made worse by its monotone, computer-synthesized delivery. “The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Except, it was indeed a drill—there was no missile threat, and the alert had been sent in error during what the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency called a “regular system drill.” Easily screengrabbed, the mobile alerts spread like wildfire within minutes. On Twitter, Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Hawaii’s second district in the U.S. House of Representatives, sent her own all-caps alert, desperately trying to assuage citizens and visitors that the message was erroneous: “HAWAII—THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII.”

War and politics notwithstanding, what makes such a false alert possible in the first place? Most Americans don’t know how emergency alerts work. Both the infrastructure for sending these notifications and the media ecosystem into which they arrive have changed substantially since the Cold War, when the shadow of nuclear annihilation last felt near.

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In 1997, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) came online, replacing the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which had been in place since 1963. To those old enough to remember broadcast television and radio, the EBS was a ubiquitous part of media life during the Cold War, which was also the era of television as a predominant information-delivery mechanism. Like every system, the EBS issued regular tests, and every 20th-century American citizen associated the television or radio voiceover “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System” with the ubiquitous shadow of global catastrophe.

Both EBS and EAS were designed to allow the president of the United States a channel to communicate quickly to the American public in the event of national crisis. That mostly meant war in the early days of EBS. Later, the system was used to provide notice about other sorts of emergencies, including natural disasters, severe weather, and other local civic emergencies. EAS formalized that function, which had become the primary purpose of EBS before its retirement. EAS also addressed the profusion of broadcast channels present in the mid-1990s, as compared with the 1960s: not just AM and FM radio and broadcast television, but also cable, fiber, digital, and satellite television, satellite radio, and more.

In 2006, after criticism surrounding government preparedness and response during Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush established a new program, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS integrated EAS and the other government warning systems, including National Warning System (NAWAS), an automated telephone warning system; the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), a warning system for mobile devices; and the National Weather Service’s Weather Radio system.

IPAWS remains in place today, and it was the service used to send the erroneous missile alert to everyone on the islands of Hawaii today. The whole system is managed by FEMA, which authorizes individual local agencies to send emergency messages. In Hawaii, there is only one authorized agency, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

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With such sophisticated and time-tested systems behind the scenes, how could that agency make a mistake like this one? The simple answer is human error, which is how the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Richard Rapoza characterized the incident in an interview with my colleague Adrienne LaFrance. That explanation serves up cold comfort to the Hawaii residents who thought they faced possible obliteration this morning. “My 10-year-old said, ‘Dad, I thought we were going to die,’” tweeted Chris Gaither, who is on vacation in Hawaii.

But beyond a bad look, human error is also not a terribly informative explanation for the spike in anxiety the message created. That’s largely because emergency notifications have become so efficient. Too efficient, maybe.

In 2013, FEMA replaced the Commercial Mobile Alert System with Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs). These are the messages you receive on your smartphones today. They include AMBER alert notices for child abductions, government emergencies including weather and, God help us, ballistic-missile attacks, and direct messages from the president. If you look carefully at your smartphone’s notification settings, you’ll see that you can disable the first two kinds of alerts, but not the third—which has never been used since the conception of all these systems in the mid-20th century.

Consider Gaither’s account of how his family learned about the fictional missile attack. “We’re an iPhone family and all our devices shrieked Amber-style alerts at the same time.”

Most people have had just this experience. IPAWS messages include an allocation for WEAs, which are sent directly to participating wireless carriers. Those messages are pushed to mobile devices active on cell towers in the area where the alert is defined—that’s why you can receive an emergency alert while traveling. Like the old EBS, an ear-piercing sound precedes a WEA, meant to grab the attention of its recipient.

People have their smartphones with them all the time. Even in bed, or nearby. That makes WEAs an effective way to reach people immediately and directly in the event of an emergency. But it also means that there is no slack in the system. The old EBS notices, or any broadcast message sent via EAS, only reached citizens who were watching television or listening to radio at the time it was sent. The system would repeat the messages occasionally, but there didn’t used to be a way to reach so many people all at once. That can be good if the information is sound, or terrible if it is not, as was the case in Hawaii today.

But perhaps the information in a WEA can never be sound, because it cannot be self-contained. A WEA must be 90 characters or less; there’s no room for elaboration or further instruction. The EAS message the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent to television and radio broadcasts included instructions for taking shelter, at least—the wireless notice did little more than suggest unvarnished panic. That’s all it can do.

Back in the days of broadcast, emergency-notification messages often instructed affected citizens to tune in to local media for further information and instruction. An emergency notice is mostly a jolt to take action—but what action? And how? And when? And why? In the 1980s or even the 1990s, that would have involved tuning in to radio or television. Even on the morning of 9/11, the internet was useless—servers overtaxed, just as the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s were today.

But there is hardly any local media to tune into, anymore. In some cases it’s been shrunk or even shuttered, as global tech companies have imposed on its viability. In other cases, people have chosen to “cut the cord,” severing their ties to both broadcast and cable in favor of globalized, streamed entertainment.

Where local media remains, it’s also global. Twitter and Facebook, where word of the false alarm spread first and most rapidly, have hardly established themselves as reliable platforms for news in the last year. And besides that, the millions (or billions) of people who saw the false alarm on social media probably got in the way of the much smaller community of people on the ground in Hawaii who really needed less noise rather than more as they evaluated the situation, and then as they recovered from the mental anguish it had incited.

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Even so, Americans far beyond the Central Pacific, already reeling from geopolitical anxieties of all stripes, were calling for the head of whoever made the error. “We needed a cancellation procedure,” Rapoza, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency rep, told LaFrance, who contributed reporting to this story. It does appear that the agency might have attempted to cancel the IPAWS alert five minutes after sending the erroneous one. But even if that cancellation might have ceased further delivery of a damaging message, it wouldn’t have issued a reversal.

That’s because WEA “worked the way it was supposed to,” as Rapoza put it. These aren’t like text messages, where a sender can dash off a quick sorry my bad if they mistype. IPAWS notices have a specific format, which must be composed formally and in advance. Audio files for broadcast notices must be recorded or generated and uploaded. Often, this has to be done by special software on special equipment.

According to Rapoza, the agency was undergoing a shift change. “During shift change they do a drill and somebody clicked the wrong thing on a computer,” he said. To send a meaningful all-clear notice, which appeared about a half-hour later (“There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False alarm.”) required properly composing and off-sending a new IPAWS civil emergency message.

So how could this happen? For many reasons. In part, it’s because emergency systems have long decoupled from the threat of war in general, let alone global thermonuclear war specifically, even as they’ve become incredibly robust at sending peacetime messages. In part, it’s because media have splintered and fragmented, making it hard to get detailed official messages to everyone. In part, though, it’s because media have consolidated in devices everyone holds in their hands and pockets, but which work best with small quantities of narrow-bandwidth information. And, in part, it’s because someone pressed the wrong button on a computer, which then did exactly what it was programmed to do.