Famous False Alarms


Adam and Brett welcome Alex Schmidt (Cracked Podcast) and John Fahy (Profiles In Eccentricity podcast) to talk about the Hawaii nuclear warning scare and few other famous false alarms from history.


Hawaii Nuclear Warning Scare

So this one time–two weeks ago–Hawaii spent 38 minutes expecting an incoming ballistic missile.

This was chalked up to someone “hitting the wrong button” but that’s not true at all! He actually selected the wrong option from a dropdown menu. You know how it goes. “The wrong button was pushed,” said Vern Miyagi, head of Hawaii’s emergency management agency by way of some kind of explanation.


It was not until 38 minutes after the warning went out that the state issued a correction. “I wish I could say there was a simple reason for why it took so long to get the correction to the false alert out,” said Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D).

This whole thing was nuts enough that The Washington Post used the term “freaked out” to describe the residents’ reaction. Listen to some of their reactions!

Just for funsies, here’s a fact sheet issued by Guam Homeland Security about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.


Japanese TV Warns Of Imminent Nuclear Attack From North Korea

Just a few days later, a false warning of a nuclear attack from North Korea hit Japan. It was pretty much the exact same thing, but less widely reported because it didn’t happen here in the states. Also it didn’t take 38 minutes to issue a correction. WHY DID IT TAKE HAWAII 38 MINUTES TO ISSUE A CORRECTION.


The 1971 National EBS Alert

Turns out sending out a national emergency alert is a complex process right up there with launching an actual nuclear attack. It includes code words that have to be verified and the whole bit. In 1971 radio stations around the country received an EBS message with the code word “hatefulness” in it. Turns out that was legit and meant they needed to interrupt what they were doing and tell the nation to be ready for another message about a national emergency. Very few stations actually followed protocol, but WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana did! In that link there’s audio of them nervously interrupting a Partridge Family song to tell their listeners an emergency alert was coming. It never came. Turns out it was a false alarm.

Over the next few minutes more messages came from Cheyenne Mountain, a DoD base in Wyoming, one of which said the alert was a false alarm and should be cancelled, BUT! That telex didn’t include the code word needed to authenticate a cancellation message. That code word was “impish” which is just hilarious for some reason. It wasn’t until 10:13 am, more than a half an hour after the initial message, stations received a proper cancellation: “Cancel message sent at 9:33 EST, repeat cancel message. Message authenticator: Impish.”


The Salem Nuclear Plant Alert

In May of last year residents living near the Salem Nuclear Plant in New Jersey received this emergency message:

“A civil authority has issued A NUCLEAR POWER PLANT WARNING for the following counties/areas: Cumberland; Salem, NJ; at 8:54 p.m. on May 23, 2017 effective until 9:54 p.m.”

There was no emergency. They were conducting a drill and someone mistook it for a real emergency and triggered the warning. That entire excuse feels like a lie, but I’m sure it’s fine.


That Time A Bear Almost Started A Nuclear War

The Cold War was a wild time. Kinda like now is shaping up to be! This is one of the best false alarm stories from the US. A guard shot at a bear climbing a fence at a base in Minnesota, tripping the “sabotage” alarm and sending them all into a panic that included activating a bunch of nuclear-armed fighter jets. Just as the planes were about to take off, a government truck with its lights flashing sped up to the runway to let everyone know it was just a false alarm.

The fact that a bear triggered all this wasn’t revealed until nearly 30 years later when the story was uncovered in declassified documents obtained through the FOIA.

Basically this is the most American story ever told.


Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov Saved Us All In 1983

This one is pretty well known and has been covered several times, but it’s still worth a mention. In 1983 Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov received an emergency alert that the United States had launched five nuclear missiles toward Russia. Protocol dictated that he should’ve alerted high command so they could take over from there. Instead, assuming if the US was really going to launch an attack they’d send way more than five missiles, he reported it as a false alarm. He was correct. It was a false alarm.

World saved, no big deal.




Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/01/16/that-was-no-wrong-button-in-hawaii-take-a-look/?utm_term=.4d34e147d44c

LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-japan-mistaken-missile-alert-20180116-story.html

Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.com/2014/02/20/we-interrupt-this-program-the-terrifying-ebs-false-alarm-of-1971/

USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/05/24/authorities-emergency-alert-n-j-nuclear-plant-false-alarm/341410001/

LaCrosse Tribune: http://lacrossetribune.com/news/false-alarm-how-a-bear-nearly-started-a-nuclear-war/article_bc6f4da6-a89c-5d7d-bf0a-e41150753b62.html

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov



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About the Author
Samantha Clarke is a writer, blogger and comedian who helps Adam Tod Brown out with the dirty work. You can find her own writing on her newsletter, substack.goodworks.com, or buy her poetry books on amazon.com/author/samanthaclarke