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These false alarms, while scary and unnerving, usually carry with them a calamity of boo-boos. You kinda of have to be a child of the Cold War.. and add to that my own experience as an Air Force Security cop who spent nearly four years guarding nukes and alert aircraft and knowing how things teetered on the edge in those days.
Let’s explore just a couple first blush things about this Hawaii scare today. Much more will come out later on as the various investigations unfold. The strength of any alert depends on one singular and most important element… it must be believed to be effective. In order to establish believability and credibility the agencies who are tasked with sending out alerts are very limited and for good reason… precise command & control of information disseminated to the public. The alert information must also travel down specific channels to assure believability. And there is a strategic aspect to all alert processes… only certain agencies can initiate an alert.. equally, only certain agencies can cancel an alert.
For those of you too young.. I reference you to the black & white film.. “Fail Safe”, with Henry Fonda as President. It was an accidental alert that set nuclear laden bombers to the Soviet Union. The President is able to recall the bombers until a failsafe point is reached. After that point is reached.. bomber crews are to ignore even the personal voice of the President, as the enemy could be faking his voice transmission. While our current bomber strike status is bolstered with backup electronic, satellite, and state-of-the-art digital technology to verify and confirm alert notifications, there still exists a failsafe point whereby a direct appeal to recall to base is ignored by the aircrews… and even Naval forces above and below the seas. This was a 1960’s era movie.. and it carried into the 1970’s when I was serving.. and those orders existed even then. Why am I referencing this now?
It’s one thing that some entity, agency, whatever, initiated an alert in Hawaii but what concerns me were all the non-official people, seemingly acting with the public welfare in mind, trying to spread a cancellation.. news that it was a false alarm. Very much case in point… when CNN broke the news almost immediately Hawaii Congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, came on confirming to CNN the false alarm.. and then she went on to say that once she had called local civil defense and learned the alert was false she starting tweeting and emailing the world. Of course she had the public’s best interests at heart and it’s instinctive to want to pass on the word.. but she was NOT official to the point of being a cog in the cancellation process. Had this been a real alert you don’t want rumors and potential “enemy” elements taking advantage and sending out false messages to the media.. who will just spread the confusion like wildfire. Sometimes.. and very “sometimes”.. if an alert is false.. let it ride until it can be officially cancelled and this means the media as well.
But.. what also compounds this false alarm is the idea that some nuke landing anywhere on or near Hawaii, with no idea at all as to where it might land, and that there is little place and no time for anyone to seek shelter, much less seek shelter with the entire family spread out over the islands so that everyone can burn up holding each other… the pure futility in finding safety is readily apparent. This means, that when an alert goes out people will react immediately and begin changing their lives immediately.. random sheer panic begins, common sense is all gone. So a false alarm is damned important… and has consequences.
Now.. the “good” of all this? As they say, it’s a wake up call for a number of reasons. The obvious is the process itself is obviously messed up. The other one.. well, when nukes begin falling your future is up to fate and the Almighty as to whether you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that also includes surviving any aftermath as that will likely also be just as bleak. Likely in real life many people would react to an impending landing of a nuke within 15 minutes with suicide.. or family suicide; not everyone will want to survive any sort of a post-nuclear detonation and all the apocalyptic scenarios attached to that. Hawaii would be on it’s own for an undetermined amount of time. There is no rescue or relief from the U.S. mainland anytime soon… especially if our national response is an escalation into lobbing nukes back on to whomever the enemy is.
The country has experienced false alerts in the past so this kind of event is not new. The one similar to this is one was called “The Great EBS Alert of 1971”. What makes this one unique for me is that I was smack in the middle of USAF basic training at Lackland AFB, TX. The date was February 20, 1971. I had reported to active duty basic training that February 2.
(I encourage you to read the story HERE as there is some vintage video of the actual alert.)
“It happened 43 years ago today, on February 20, 1971. On that Saturday morning at 9:33 AM Eastern time, Telex machines in every broadcast station in America that was part of the EBS suddenly rang urgently with ten successive bells–a signal only used for an imminent EBS warning–and then spat out a sheet reading, “This is an Emergency Action Notification directed by the president. Normal broadcasting will cease immediately.” The telex included the code word, “Hatefulness.”
I recall having been in our dorm area following our morning breakfast, waiting for our day’s plan of instruction. There was an increasing hum of brisk activity among many of the training NCO’s. The rumor spread of an missile attack alert and one guy rushed in saying he just overheard that all basic trainees were going to be issued weapons. Whoa. That seemed a bit serious to me at the time… although it wasn’t clear who we were supposed to be shooting at. We were instructed to remain in our dorm (new warm-and-fussy term for “barracks”) until further notice. I recall it being a long wait before the cancellation came through. Keep in mind there were no cells phones to call loved ones in those days.
In the following minutes, many confusing messages emanated from Cheyenne Mountain, the Department of Defense base in Wyoming, to EBS-participating stations. They told the stations that the original telex was a false alarm, but there was also supposed to be another code word to authenticate a cancellation, and that code word–“impish”–was not included in the new telexes.
Thus, under their rules, radio and TV stations had to ignore them. Conceivably in a real war the Soviets might try to confuse the American public by sending out false messages, perhaps hoping to maximize civilian casualties in a sneak nuclear attack. Unlikely–and diabolical–but possible, and in that era of distrust, who knew?
This illustrates the compounded problem in the Hawaii event in that false alarm notifications were being spread by unauthorized, but well-intended persons.
At 10:13 AM, more than half an hour after the crisis began, Cheyenne Mountain finally sent a real cancellation message: “Cancel message sent at 09:33 EST, repeat cancel message. Message authenticator: Impish.” It was over. No Nixon, no nukes. The whole thing was a false alarm.
What happened? Actually, not much. An operator at Cheyenne Mountain put the wrong tape into the machine during a scheduled test of the EBS. The telex that went out should have instructed stations to conduct a test, and listeners should have heard the “This is just a test, booooooop” spiel. Instead, a lot of people were waiting to hear a radio or TV anchor announce the impending annihilation of humanity.
The false alarm was a major embarrassment for the FCC and the federal government. After several investigations, the system was overhauled and streamlined, eliminating potentially confusing procedures and messages. We will never know–fortunately–how the EBS would have functioned in a real nuclear war. In 1997 the EBS was replaced by the Emergency Alert System, which is what we have now.
Hawaiians and the rest of the country should consider this false alarm as a wakeup call for disaster preparedness and understanding all the way down to the individual person engaging in his/her normal day and suddenly coming to grips with their mortality at a moments notice.
To this day one of the observations I carry with me about the Towers falling on 9/11… that people going about their business inside the Towers on that idyllic morning, within the time of one hour many would be making the conscious decision to jump out a window 90 floors up and doing a free fall to certain death. There is no comprehension how any of us would respond to the threat of certain annihilation.