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Why Hawaiians spent Saturday morning waiting to die in a nuclear fireball

The operator was given two options in a drop-down menu.

by David Gilbert
Jan 15 2018, 12:31pm

Getty Images

Human error and a clunky user interface caused the false missile alert that left more than a million Hawaiians preparing for a fiery death Saturday.

Islanders received an 8 a.m. mobile alert, warning:

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

A longer message was shared on TV and radio:

“If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

People scrambled for shelter and bid farewell to loved ones before authorities sent another message some 30 minutes later admitting the false alarm.

Here’s how it happened:

  • The Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency regularly tests its systems for warning citizens about a possible missile strike. One such test was scheduled for Saturday morning.
  • At 8.05 a.m. an unnamed HEMA employee logged on to test the system internally. From a drop-down menu in the software the employee was offered two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.”
  • “In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option,” HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza told the Washington Post.
  • There was, however, another step the employee had to take before the alert was sent, clicking through a pop-up confirmation prompt to send the warning. At 8.07 a.m. the errant message was dispatched.
  • “This sounds like terrible user interface design to me,” computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote. “Why have the genuine "Jeez Louise! Freak out everybody!" option slap-bang next to one the harmless "Test the brown alert" option?”
  • The alert set off a wave of panic across the islands. The dread was exacerbated by the fact it took 38 minutes for authorities to issue a follow-up message.
  • While HEMA has permission to send alerts, it does not have permission to send out a correction. As such, it wasn’t until 8.45 a.m. that the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized the update.
  • Though the guilty employee will not be fired but reassigned, HEMA said Sunday.
  • Though the alert caused widespread alarm, some islanders did manage to keep their cool: