How emergency alerts are supposed to happen; what went wrong in Hawaii

Human error is blamed for a false alarm of a missile heading for Hawaii, but the scare left Americans wondering how the missile detection and emergency messaging systems are supposed to work — and what went wrong.

The US military is in charge of detecting ballistic missile launches and maintains a complex and integrated network of sensors and detection capabilities in the Pacific to follow missile activity, a network that has been improved in recent years.

Missile launches are detected immediately by satellites that notice the infrared signature on the launchpad.

The detection triggers an instant Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, assessment process. The assessment looks at where the launch is, the potential type of missile, trajectory, apogee, distance and potential targets in the path of the missile.

Top military commanders join a conference call, with the top priority being to decide whether the missile is a threat to the US or its allies.

If the missile is a threat, the president is brought in and response decisions are made. NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), STRATCOM, intelligence agencies and the National Security Council are involved in the decision-making.

Even if the missile is not a threat, the president usually is notified quickly, while missiles are still in flight.

The United States has not had to make a direct military response to recent North Korean launches because it’s been assessed they posed no threat to the United States. If they did, missiles on ships in the Pacific, or other land-based missiles, could be launched to try to shoot down an incoming missile.

How an alert goes out

The military shares all tracking and verification with civilian authorities. Hawaii’s emergency management system relies on the military because it does not have detection capability on its own.

Hawaii has a three-component emergency notification system, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

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