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After False Alarm, A Look At How Hawaii's Emergency Alert System Is Supposed To Work

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Absolutely unacceptable - those were the words from Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission. He was talking about the false alert sent out over radio, TV and cellphones in Hawaii over the weekend warning of an incoming ballistic missile. Pai says a full investigation is already underway. In a moment we'll hear more about how the emergency alert system is supposed to work and how it could be improved - first, NPR's Colin Dwyer on what happened on Saturday.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: The alert itself didn't last long. It took maybe 20 seconds for the warning to loop around. Officials say someone just pressed a wrong button. And this brief message which spread panic across Hawaii took nearly 40 minutes to correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VERN MIYAGI: I accept responsibility for this. This is my team. We made a mistake.

DWYER: That's Vern Miyagi, the administrator of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency. After the incident, he told reporters that one of the big problems was that they had been practicing how to send warnings. But canceling those warnings when there was a mistake - not so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIYAGI: Our focus has been getting the notification out to the public. One thing that we have to work on more is the cancellation notice in this event.

DWYER: They had to manually cancel the false alarm on Saturday. Now Miyagi says they have established an automatic way to cancel such mistakes, which is a crucial point to keep in mind especially given recent nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard spoke to CNN about the scare.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TULSI GABBARD: It's not just the president making a decision to launch a nuclear weapon. It's these kinds of mistakes that we have seen happen in the past that bring us to this brink of nuclear war.

DWYER: Had there been an actual threat, a combination of satellites, radar installations and warships would have been mobilized to track and potentially try to shoot down the missile. As it was, the U.S. Pacific Command quickly determined it was a false alarm. But similar scares did happen several times during the Cold War, including an incident in 1979 when American computers mistook a simulated Soviet attack for a real one.

Such memories are not the only Cold War artifact to resurface lately. Just last month, Hawaii tested its nuclear warning sirens for the first time in decades. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told "Fox News Sunday" it is important people continue to take such warnings seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We're working with state and locals to ensure not only that the messaging is clear but what to do next is clear as well.

DWYER: Colin Dwyer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.

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