Hawaii missile scare damages trust in electronic alert system

A false alarm for an imminent missile strike spread panic across Hawaii on Saturday Jan. 13, leaving residents wary of electronic emergency alert systems.

At 8:07 a.m., during a routine test of the state’s Emergency Alert System, an employee mistakenly sent out a message to cell phones stating, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill,” according to USA Today. It also reported that that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had issued changes on Jan. 15, requiring two people to activate and verify alerts.

Chaos ensued Saturday morning across the islands as residents and tourists feared for their lives and sought shelter. According to the Associated Press, Hawaiian resident Patrick Day now feels skeptical about the emergency alerts. “My confidence in our so-called leaders’ ability to disseminate this vital information has certainly been tarnished,” Day said. 

Buena Vista, Ark. resident Mary Louise Fayles lived in Hawaii for three years in the 1970’s and was stunned when she heard about the false alarm. “I just can’t believe the carelessness. What kind of checks do they do? Are they constantly on alert to be careful about what they’re doing?” Fayles said.

For sophomore Selena Fincher, a mechanical engineering major, the Hawaii missile scare did not take her by surprise. “It seemed something that was completely reasonable, like something that you could expect. False alarms happen, and there’s all kinds of stupid nuclear threats thanks to Trump,” Fincher said.

“I know you have to forgive the people in charge, but my gosh, get your act together,” Fayles said. “I heard stories when we moved there about losing family members in horrible tsunamis because they didn’t have things set up to warn the people. So, when it came in, they went out. This is the same thing. They’re not set up.”

Fayles’ greatest concern is for those without access to the cell phone alerts. “I don’t do texts. I would be up the creek, wondering why everyone is running around like ants.” 

John Brown University uses a Crisis Alert System to send text and email alerts to students and faculty in emergency situations. According the University website, the system is activated by a Campus Safety Officer under the direction of the Campus Emergency Response Team and the authority of the University President or his or her representative.

Imagining himself in the situation, freshman Ottoniel Jimenez Herrera, an electrical engineering major, said, “I would try to protect my family. If I realize that other people are in danger, I would try to let them know and encourage them to take action as soon as possible.”

Fincher sees the mistake as potentially dangerous, “especially if there’s too many of them because then people don’t take it seriously.” However, she trusts that the campus Crisis Alert System “is working fine.”

Jimenez Herrera agrees that the JBU Crisis Alert System is effective in keeping students aware of threatening events on campus. “It’s a very good way to notify students about the situations that might put them in danger. It allows them to take action as well.”

If ever in the same situation as the Hawaiian residents faced, Fayles said, “The very first thing I do would be praying. At least there’s that reassurance, if you have faith.”