They’re 911 calls that cover the spectrum of emotion.
Fear: “The whole family, all scared, you know?”
Disbelief: “Was that a typo? A really, really bad typo?”
Anger: “Somebody needs to get their a– whooped!”
The calls were placed to the Honolulu Police Department on January 13 – the morning a phone text alert was mistakenly sent out, warning of an incoming ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.
“Seek immediate shelter,” it read, injecting panic into more than a million Hawaiians and tourists with its ominous tag line. “This is not a drill.”
Honolulu police this week released 24 calls at the request of local media, calling them representative of 2,000-plus calls placed to dispatchers at the height of the confusion. CNN affiliate KHON posted the calls on its website.
The state had already been on edge on the day of confusion, having undergone various missile drills after learning North Korea possessed a long-range missile that could reach Hawaii.
After the alert went out at 8:07 a.m. local time, police dispatchers – who were not responsible for the mistake – were just as confused as the callers and were relying on the media for information.
Several times, callers were instructed to watch CNN.
“At this time, we’re trying to see on the news, like CNN, cause we just got the message, too, and we don’t have any answers,” a dispatcher told one caller two minutes after the alert went out.
“I don’t own a TV, what should I do?” the woman replied.
“OK, if anything… do you have radio access?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t know, no I don’t,” she said, sounding disoriented with confusion. “I have just Internet. Should I go to a neighbor?”
“Can you please? Because we don’t have the answer either because we just got the message too, just now, I’m sorry,” the dispatcher said.
By 8:15 a.m. – eight minutes after the alert – police dispatchers were finally warned of the mistake, which occurred when a state employee hit the wrong button during a planned drill.
But it would be 30 minutes after that before the public would get that same information declaring a false alarm. In that time, many callers were still in the dark, hearing from dispatchers about the mistake for the first time.
Caller: “My hotel is under alert, is that true?”
Dispatcher: “OK, that information is wrong. The information is wrong. That was a mistake. There is no danger.”
“Yeah, they’re idiots,” another caller said, after being told of the state’s error.
Even after the public received its second alert – the “all clear” at 8:45 a.m – many 911 callers still appeared confused and afraid. Others simply vented in anger.
Caller: “North Korea could have landed their missiles in 20 minutes, everybody knows that!
Dispatcher: “I’m sorry, sir. I am so sorry…”
Caller: “Well they need to get the system up and running much better than it is so people are not left hanging, not knowing what to do!”
Dispatcher: “We were in the dark, too. I’m so sorry.”
Caller: “911 should get tied to the televisions… nobody in the government of Hawaii is listening to this situation to make something happen! They’re giving it mouth service, that’s all, mouth service!”
The calls released by police fall into a 61-minute time span from that morning, during which operators were chastised (“That’s not an answer, there has to be an answer as to what happened!”), served as counselors and even sounding boards for a wary public.
Caller: “It’s not fun, you know, it’s not fun. They got to find out who did that, you know?
Dispatcher: “Yes, they do. They do… they’re going to find out.”
Caller: “Go find out and go catch them, you know? Don’t let them go.”
The state employee who pushed the wrong button during the drill was eventually fired. According to an investigating officer, he claimed not to know it was an exercise, even though five other employees in the room reported hearing “exercise, exercise, exercise.”
Even as chaos was unfolding that morning in the police dispatch center, one operator managed to sum up the event while giving audience to a man who was unsure where to take shelter.
“It was like a wake-up call,” she said.
“A wake-up call,” the man agreed.
“Yeah, because what if it was real, right?” the dispatcher said.