How Mass-Notification Became Mis-Notification in Hawaii’s Nuclear Warning System

This weekend’s nuclear scare in Hawaii caused widespread panic and chaos when an incoming missile alert was wrongly sent out. Fear of a nuclear strike is already pervasive as tensions rise between Trump and Kim Jong-un, and many people felt certain that a strike was imminent and that they or their loved ones were going to die.

While some argue that the incident will at least provide data about how people would react in a real-life nuclear strike, the toll on the Hawaiian people cannot be understated. Many described the traumatic experience of trying to contact family members, comfort terrified children and find appropriate shelter, and one British tourist even suffered a seizure triggered by the stress.

So how – in a state for whom “preparedness” has been a part of their culture since Pearl Harbour – did this mass communication go so wrong?

1. The message was fired off with only one button

emergency button chipped paint
When terror and panic can be spread across a whole state with one careless twitch of the finger, systems need to be improved.

Governor David Ige told CNN, “An employee pushed the wrong button.” This, of course, is not so much a failure of the employee, but a failure of the system in place. Simply put – one button should not be all it takes to create a state-wide emergency response.

Government staff perform a twice-daily test of the alerting system using a ‘test alert’ function, and the error occurred when ‘live test’ was selected instead. It’s hard to believe that this mistake has not happened before with such a simplistic system. To avoid these kinds of simple errors, having all emergency communications verified by an official in a position of authority would have ensured that messages are double-checked before being sent out to the public, and state officials quickly put a new system in place requiring two people to sign off on any such message in the future. While time is always of the essence in an emergency, it is vital that information is accurate.


2. Instructions were not clear enough

fallout shelter sign
While some Hawaiians knew where to find their nearest bomb shelter, many had no idea where to go.


These were the only instructions given in the emergency message. Some people were able to make it to Cold War era nuclear bunkers, but many hid in bathtubs and closets. There was no information on what constituted “shelter”, no maps given about where to find shelter and no information about what to bring. Most citizens are not survival experts and do not have an emergency plan (although no doubt many Hawaiians, and people all over America, will make it more of a priority in light of this weekend’s events), and instructions need to be more than 3 words long.


3. It took 38 minutes for the Hawaiian government to respond

Ige said that the interval was because “we had to manually go through the process to provide notification on the smartphones and cellphones.” If this is the case, it highlights how important it is to keep mass-notification infrastructures up to date. The US’s Emergency Alert System was introduced before the days of the internet, and clearly needs to be updated.

It also serves to demonstrate the need for a recall function and to be prepared with follow-up templates. A flaw in the alert system caused a delay in sending out a message to mobile phones to correct the mistake, and state officials have promised a “cancellation template” in order to rectify the situation more quickly should it ever happen again.
There is no doubt that the Hawaii nuclear scare was a disastrous, perhaps even dangerous, blunder that made the potential consequences of the “nuclear button” stand-off all too real for Hawaiians and the rest of the West. However, amid all of the fury and fear it is important to learn what we can from such incidents and use it to improve our resilience in the face of deadly threats.


YUDU Sentinel is an app based crisis communication platform for the management of fire, terrorist and cyber attacks, or any other critical incidents. Crisis managers have immediate access to an independent two-way communication (SMS, voice, email and in app messaging) and can view key documents on mobiles. Sentinel is a cutting edge crisis management tool. Find out more at or contact us on Twitter @YUDUSentinel.

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