The Hawaii Missile Alert Culprit: Poorly Chosen File Names

Jared M. Spool
9 min readJan 17, 2018

Saturday morning, January 13, 2018 at 8:09am Hawaii time, a staff member of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s (HIEMA) State Warning Point office was going through their routine shift change checklist. They went through the same checklist every time they started their shift. It was routine. It wasn’t interesting.

At one point, they opened up their IPAWS alert software, retrieved a list of saved “templates” and picked one from a list of 9. What they picked was named PACOM (CDW) — STATE ONLY.

Only, this wasn’t the template file they meant to open. The template they meant to open was named DRILL — PACOM (CDW) — STATE ONLY. Other than the word DRILL in the file name, the two files were nearly identical. I say nearly, because there was one other difference: The drill version sent a message only to test devices, while the non-drill version sent the exact same message to every mobile phone in Hawaii.


The message that showed up on every cell phone in Hawaii.

The State Warning Point staff member didn’t immediately realize they’d chosen the wrong file. Nothing in the system would tell them they had. The clicks and confirmations were exactly the same for either file. They wouldn’t realize their mistake until a few moments later, when their personal phone buzzed with the alert, as did everyone else’s in the State Warning Point Emergency Operations Center. Oops.

Sending a message to millions of phones about an incoming ballistic missile should, one would think, have a confirmation message. It did. But so did the test message. It also required the user type in a special password to ensure they intended to send the message to every recipient, but so did the test message.

The crux of the error was choosing the wrong file, from a list that looked like this:

This list, supplied by HIEMA, are the templates for messages.

It’s not hard to see how the wrong file was chosen. These seem to be listed in chronological order, newest to last. (The first file BMD False Alarm was added right after the false alert went out and the…

Jared M. Spool

Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre - UIE. Helping designers everywhere help their organizations deliver well-designed products and services.