Utah emergency bosses dissect Hawaii's bungled ballistic missile alert

Friday , January 19, 2018 - 6:34 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Don’t expect to see any ballistic missile warnings, real or otherwise, from Utah emergency agencies.

“We do not have pre-scripted messages about inbound missiles,” said Lance Peterson, Weber County’s emergency services director.

A false alarm that panicked Hawaii on Saturday morning, Jan. 13, happened after a worker chose the wrong option to send a message intended as a test, according to the Associated Press. More than a million Hawaiian cell phones got the all-caps message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” 

RELATED: Hawaii missile alert: How one employee 'pushed the wrong button' and caused a wave of panic

RELATED: First Hawaii, now Japan sends a false alarm about incoming North Korean missile

Asked about the Hawaii faux pas and how local warning systems work, Peterson and Joe Dougherty of the Utah Division of Emergency Management explained processes and safeguards designed to prevent emergency alert mistakes here.

“I reassure Utah that what happened in Hawaii is very, very, extremely unlikely in Utah,” Dougherty said. “I don’t know how I can put that in stronger terms.”

While speed is vital in a true emergency, Dougherty said the Utah alert system does not store actual messages as templates. Scripted messages are stored, he said, but “I have to grab it out of another document” and cut and paste it into an emergency alert form.

If the wrong message was going out, “At that point, I would be doing it deliberately,” he said. “Copying and pasting the wrong message would be very, very hard to do.”

Plus, only the governor and the directors of the Utah Department Public Safety and the emergency services agency have authority to order the sending of a state alert, Dougherty said. 

RELATED: Local officials pushing residents to sign up for CodeRED emergency alert system

Peterson added, “We would never send out a test message saying ‘this is not a drill.’” And there are ways to test the systems offline that don’t risk major errors, he said.

Peterson noted a scare similar to Hawaii’s happened later this week in Japan.

But he said he was reluctant to second-guess emergency officials in those trouble spots and instead preferred to exhort people in Weber and Davis counties to sign up for CodeRED mobile alerts — so more people will get essential warnings of trouble locally.

Weber County and the state division also tie into the federal government’s emergency alert system backbone, called IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System).

“IPAWS is a very powerful tool that enables us to reach out and ping cell towers, and that enables us to hit every cell phone, even if they’re not registered in our system,” Peterson said.

He said he was tempted to use IPAWS alerts during the disastrous Uintah fire last summer but decided it was not needed.

“We really try not to overuse it because it is so far-reaching,” he said. “We will be very careful how we pick and choose to use IPAWS.”

Alerts can be sent regarding fires, floods, earthquakes, evacuations, crime, Amber Alerts, missing-person cases and boil-water notices.

Keeping a critical mass of phone numbers in the CodeRED system is a challenge because the number of landlines in Weber County is dropping by about 10,000 a year, Peterson said. People with cell phones must sign up to receive alerts.

He also touted the CodeRED mobile app, whose users can receive alerts geo-coded to their home or work addresses. 

Peterson and Dougherty said in their view, warning messages about ballistic missile attacks — which has become a topic amid heightened nuclear tensions between North Korea and the United States — are the province of the federal government.

“Our big threat is an earthquake,” Peterson said. “People need to be prepared for the big earthquake, with a family plan, a 72-hour kit. Be prepared, not paranoid.”

But the Hawaii incident left a lesson, Dougherty said.

“Definitely, what happened in Hawaii will serve as some very good talking points for continued training in our state,” Dougherty said. “We always talk about the need to avoid sending the wrong message. We need to get the information at the right time to the right people so they can make the right decisions for themselves.”

Story continues below photo.

On the nuclear front, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Dougherty's agency offer tips on how to prepare for nuclear blasts. 

FEMA's Ready.gov website features a “Nuclear Blast” topic page dominated by a photo of a mushroom cloud. “Strategic missile sites and military bases” is at the top of the list of potential targets.

Dougherty said Utah’s “Nuclear Blast” readiness page has existed for several years, predating the North Korea tension that flared last year at the start of the Trump administration.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

 To sign up for CodeRED, visit the portal for your county:

• Weber: https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/11B885E194B7

• Davis: https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/E3BC2EED087A

• Morgan: https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/B8BED8EFD609

• Box Elder: https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/8FBD05EC3702

• Cache: https://public.coderedweb.com/cne/en-US/E86621C92CA4 

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