No One Ever Told Me My Job Would Include… Dealing with a Korean Missile Alert!

By Michelle A. Moore

The Hawaii State Library System has mandatory employee training on workplace violence and safety because, let’s face it, things happen. The premise is to make us more aware and prepared to effectively manage a crisis.

Hawaii libraries have been closed for hurricanes, tsunami’s, and even volcano activity, but no ever told me my job would include handling a false ballistic missile alert. This unexpected event occurred on January 13, 2018, approximately one hour before the library would open its doors to the public. To make things more interesting, I handled the crisis from my car as I had the day off and was heading to a workshop when the alert came through my mobile phone.

It read, “Extreme Alert: Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a Drill.” This message came in at 8:07am and caused state-wide panic with cars travelling in the wrong direction on the highway, phone lines overloaded with frantic goodbye calls to family members, and well-meaning parents placing children down manholes for protection. Fortunately, this turned out to be a false alarm. Unfortunately, we may have 12 to 15 minutes before impact in an actual event, and what can you do in that amount of time?

My first thought was to call the staff at the library and my bosses in Honolulu, but all phone lines were busy. It’s good to know that texting is still an effective mode of communication when calls will not go through. I finally got through to Hawaii County Civil Defense but no one answered the phone. I was hoping for a nice recorded message claiming the alert was sent out in error. Searching for answers from my car, I checked the radio stations and internet for details. Nothing. I listened for the sound of the new intermittent beep warning signal indicating a missile launch, which was implemented just a few months ago. No sirens. My district administrator advised me to treat this as an actual emergency, keep the library doors closed, and wait for confirmation.   

At 8:45 am, the follow up text message came to my phone, “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.” Since I believe that everything happens for a reason, I think the entire state was meant to learn from the incident, take the risk seriously, and prepare for the future.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 drew the United States into the war. There is a large military presence here. North Korea’s technology seems to be advancing thus a missile launch toward Hawaii could actually happen. We need to extract the good from this situation. Many feared the end of the world. Others, like me, had complete disregard. But now we can all appreciate the fact that this was a drill, get our plans in place, stockpile our supplies, and know exactly what to do in case a true event occurs. By the way, I stopped at Target later that day and there wasn’t a case of water to be found.

My circulation supervisor stays on top of potential library emergencies and enjoys catching us off guard with impromptu fire drills; she even donned a mask and toy gun to simulate an active shooter situation. We have learned from these exercises and improved our lockdown and evacuation procedures as a result.

Earlier this year, before the prospect was considered a serious threat, she was the first to ask me what to do for a Korean missile launch. We decided to treat it as an evacuation scenario by shuffling everyone outside and accounting for our staff before leaving. As it turns out, we were wrong. The state of Hawaii has decided on a shelter-in-place procedure to allow anyone into our building who seek shelter, including those employees who cannot make it home in time. We have divided up tasks, such as filling water bottles and closing doors and windows, and started a collection of drinking water and food to store in case of emergency. We have a battery-operated radio and flashlights at the ready along with extra batteries. We are advised to stay inside and avoid exposure for two weeks.

During a shift change and routine test at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, someone made a mistake. The procedure has now been scrutinized, updated, improved, and the report is in. If you would like to read it, we have copies at the reference desk in the library. No longer just a building full of books, we are also the community program center, computer lab, research assistant, and keeper of knowledge. And now a missile shelter. Libraries will never go away, they simply evolve.

Michelle A. Moore is the branch manager of the Hilo Public Library in Hawaii, the busiest branch of the state’s 50-library system.