WASHINGTON — The state worker in Hawaii who sent a false wireless alert warning of an inbound ballistic missile on Jan. 13 issued the message intentionally, thinking the state faced an actual threat, the Federal Communications Commission said on Tuesday.
The mistake, which touched off widespread confusion and panic in Hawaii, occurred when an emergency management services worker on the day shift misinterpreted testing instructions from a midnight shift supervisor, the commission said. Believing the instructions were for a real emergency, the day-shift worker sent the live alert to the cellphones of all Hawaii residents and visitors to the state.
Officials had previously described the episode as an accident. Shortly after it happened, Gov. David Y. Ige of Hawaii blamed the false warning on a state employee who “pressed the wrong button.” State officials are scheduled to discuss the findings of their own investigation later on Tuesday afternoon.
Although other emergency management officials in Hawaii knew that the state was supposed to be conducting an internal drill at the time, the employee who sent the alert, who has not been publicly identified, told the commission in a written statement that he or she believed it was an actual emergency.
The employee then chose from options in a drop-down menu that included test and real alerts. When prompted with the question “Are you sure you want to send this alert?,” the employee clicked “yes,” according to the commission.
The commission faulted the state for lacking measures to prevent the human error and, once it occurred, for taking 38 minutes to correct it.
Hawaii “didn’t have reasonable safeguards in place,” Ajit Pai, the commission chairman, said.
“It is astounding that no one was hurt,” said Mike O’Reilly, a Republican commissioner.
In a separate action on Tuesday, the commission voted to improve a different aspect of the emergency alert system, allowing public safety officials to send more geographically precise alerts to avoid spreading panic across broad swaths of the public.
Under the new rules, alerts can be directed to geographic parameters within a tenth of a mile of the relevant area. Under the existing system, alerts often go to an entire county, spanning hundreds of square miles.
The new technical requirement, which is to take effect in November 2019, is seen as a major upgrade by public safety officials. They say they have been put in the difficult position of deciding to send alerts for fires, hurricanes and other emergencies, while balancing concerns of raising fears among people who are not immediately in harm’s way.
During wildfires last October in Sonoma County, Calif., emergency officials were criticized because they did not send alerts, leaving residents to find out about the fires from neighbors knocking on doors. Officials later said they did not send alerts because they did not want to upset residents far from the fires.
“When disaster strikes, it’s essential that Americans in harm’s way get reliable information so that they can stay safe and protect their loved ones,” Mr. Pai said. “People shouldn’t miss out on potentially lifesaving information just because the alert system’s current brush stroke is too broad.”
The mistake in Hawaii has stoked calls by lawmakers and regulators to improve wireless emergency alerts, which are slowly being updated and will include longer messages and Spanish-language versions starting next year.
Started in 2012, the Wireless Emergency Alert system grew from the decades-old Emergency Broadcast System used for television and radio alerts. The federal government viewed mobile phone technology as a more efficient and reliable way of warning individuals about weather, law enforcement and missing person threats.
The program is voluntary and every major wireless carrier and hundreds of cities, counties, states and law enforcement offices participate. Consumers do not pay to get alerts and can opt out of receiving the text-like warnings, except for those sent by the president.
The episode in Hawaii revealed major differences in how alerts are sent. In places like Houston, Chicago and New York City, tests and real alerts are not kept in the same drop-down menu, and at least one other person’s approval is required to send an alert.
Some lawmakers have proposed that only members of the Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security should be able to send a warning about missile threats.
While generally lauded by public safety officials, some lawmakers have said the new geo-targeting requirements will take too long to go into effect. The wireless industry has insisted it needs more than one year to implement the new technical requirements.