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Alaska emergency alert system less vulnerable to false alarms than Hawaii’s, officials believe

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: January 16
  • Published January 15

Alaska has a system to warn residents of an incoming nuclear or other long-range missile attack — and officials here say it is not as vulnerable to a false alarm as Hawaii's system was on Saturday.

Laurie Hummel, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military & Veterans' Affairs, and Mike Sutton, the state's new director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, explained the system on Monday.

Here are some basics:

How would officials know a missile was targeting Alaska?

The U.S. Department of Defense would verify an incoming ballistic missile, a scenario that Hummel called "very, very, very unlikely." The department would work through Northern Command, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to notify the Alaska National Guard joint operations center. The guard and the state emergency operations center both are located in the Armory on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The National Guard would immediately share a missile notification with the state emergency operations center, Hummel said.

How would the state then get that information to the public?

The state emergency operations center is staffed during the normal workday, and an on-call duty officer has a cell phone and laptop to use around the clock, Sutton said. The center would alert television and radio stations and also send text messages to cell phones across Alaska.

"It's depending on your cell phone provider as to whether you get that or not," Sutton said.

Some smaller wireless providers, including GCI, are not yet set up to distribute emergency texts to all their customers. It's a technical process and the Federal Communications Commission is allowing smaller companies extra time. GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said GCI customers for now can download an app. The company is working to connect to "a national gateway for alerts and the ability to distribute them to geographic areas," she said in an email.

In Hawaii, an employee mistakenly sent an alert of a missile instead of running a test. The alert went to cell phones all over the islands and caused panic and despair. Could that happen here?

No, said Hummel and Sutton. She talked on Saturday to her counterpart in Hawaii and believes Alaska's system has built-in checks that were lacking in Hawaii.

If the military alerted Alaska of an incoming missile, the state emergency operations worker would have to generate the text message. In Hawaii the worker simply selected a ready-to-go alert instead of the parallel test message.

"We don't have a simple button that you would hit, and it could be the wrong button," Sutton said "We have to manually create the message, type in a password, click multiple buttons and then, before you transmit, the system is going to ask the operator to type 'yes' before you are allowed to actually proceed."

Hawaii's system was too simple, officials now realize, Hummel said. It has already changed to require a second employee to sign off on a real alert.

Alaska is letting a single employee control when to send the alerts, Hummel said.

Still, "that would be beyond my imagination that that would ever happen in Alaska," Sutton said of the false alarm.

Some governments are providing citizens with information on what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. Why hasn't Alaska?

The state doesn't want to alarm residents for a theoretical threat, Sutton said. Alaska officials have collected materials from Guam, Hawaii and other places that it can distribute when appropriate, he said. A state brochure gives information on how to plan for emergencies that people can turn to now.

With the attention on the false alarm, the state will evaluate whether to provide more specific information, Hummel said.

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