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.