Ringing and rattling cellphones on Saturday, Jan. 13, interrupted Tracy Ternberg’s breakfast.
The Eau Claire resident and his daughter, Avery, were dining al fresco on a beach in Hawaii with a view of Diamond Head State Monument. An alert was sent to Avery’s phone and those of other nearby diners.
“We looked around and only one table got up and panicked,” said Tracy Ternberg, who was in Hawaii for an international business summit. “No hotel alarm or siren, no instruction, absolutely nothing, which clearly needs to be corrected for actual emergency protocol. So we stayed put.
“Avery actually stated something along the lines of, ‘Well, if I’m going to die today, I’d rather die eating breakfast with this view.’”
The “emergency alert” message that went out to Twitter accounts that day read: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
About 10 minutes after the initial alert, Ternberg said, staff informed the diners they would be escorted to the hotel ballroom. Once there, he came across people positioned under tables and many trying to determine if the threat was real. Ternberg, whose wife and other two children did not make the trip, said he was relatively unworried.
“Things just did not add up,” he said. “The lack of urgency and warning from the hotel, no sirens sounded (afterward they said military base sirens did go off) and everyone else in our hotel being calm, it just didn’t seem real. So we didn’t panic at all.
“Sounds weird looking back at it now; maybe we should have been more worried, but we just weren’t.”
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The warning turned out to be a false alarm, with human error found to be the cause. Hawaiian officials, however, did not issue a correction until about 38 minutes after the initial alarm. Some didn’t take the initial warning as calmly as the Ternbergs did.
“I wish I could say there was a simple reason for why it took so long to get the correction to the false alert out,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige said on the Monday following the event.
“Children going down manholes, stores closing their doors to those seeking shelter and cars driving at high speeds cannot happen again.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai echoed that sentiment in a Washington Post piece.
“The false emergency alert sent ... in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “It caused a wave of panic across the state. ... (False alerts) undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies.”
Aside from the possibility of panic-related injuries, false alarms can instill a sense of complacency in the public should a real emergency occur. They also illustrate the shortcomings of our nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system.
“Since 2012 ... officials have been able to send short, loud messages to smartphones about dangerous weather conditions, abducted children and threatening fugitives,” read a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial. “But there is plenty of evidence the system isn’t nearly as sophisticated and foolproof as it could be.”
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“(The system) needs to have safeguards to ensure false alarms aren’t issued,” continued the Union-Tribune editorial. “It also needs to be able to send much more targeted messages to avoid creating panic in areas that aren’t at risk. This problem led officials to be cautious about issuing alerts last year as devastating Hurricane Harvey neared Houston and at the start of the deadly wine country fires in Northern California.”
In a story by Madison-based station WKOW, state officials said it was unlikely a similar error would occur in Wisconsin.
“We have a duty officer who types in the message, it goes through a senior duty officer, so we have two people who see it before it goes out,” said Lori Getter, a Wisconsin Emergency Management spokesperson.
“We can cancel a message fairly quickly.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what transpired in Hawaii. Despite the error, however, the journey was a positive one for the Ternbergs, who returned home last week.
“The trip was fantastic,” Tracy Ternberg said. “Whales, sea turtles, seals, sun, sand, big waves on the North Shore, beautiful hiking and of course, a huge memory of, ‘I survived the ballistic missile threat!’”