Unexpected fear is usually served in short bursts: that car that veers into your lane, for instance. The crisis is quickly avoided or dealt with, leaving the taste of spent adrenaline in the mouth.
38 minutes is no burst. It's 63% of an hour. It's a long time that probably feels like forever if you're spending it in a shelter or a bathtub or wherever Hawaiians were as they waited for a missile strike Saturday morning.
It took 38 minutes from when the warning was first sounded--THIS IS NOT A DRILL, the statement read as if speaking directly to those who figured it was just a test--to the all-clear. That it happened in the first place is astonishing. That it took that long to clear up is unacceptable.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was last seen in the headlines tweaking a global communications system (the Internet) that didn't need his meddling at all, now promises to get to the bottom of what happened over the weekend in our 50th state. This is not where we're going to discuss our nation's already over-wrought nerves, our fear of a possible North Korean nuclear assault or the number of minutes we are away from midnight on the Doomsday Clock. Those were all in play before Saturday.
What most of us didn't know was the tattered state of the warning system, not just in Hawaii but throughout the country.
Blame for the Saturday incident seems to be two-fold, with authorities saying that someone pressed a wrong button during a shift change, sending the message out in the first place. The second issue--the lag in rescinding it--is to blame on Hawaii itself. In Pai's words, "It appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert." It also highlights other issues with the system, including the frequency of alerts that can reduce their effectiveness as well as the inability to target them to specific areas--too often, critics tell the New York Times, they cover too broad a region and keep emergency personnel from warning small, particularly threatened areas. The Times says two Californai lawmakers wrote Pai last month amid that state's wildfire outbreak to point out the system's vulnerabilities, saying officials are caught between warning people of sparking mass panic because of the inability to pinpoint dangers.
Part of the problem is the proximity of change. The Wireless Emergency Alert System is all of five years old, allowing officials to use digital devices to send out warnings and alerts instead of relying solely on radio and television. Bugs can be expected in such a relatively new set-up, but have to be found out through vigorous testing and changed, rather than being allowed to make their presence known in real time.
Chairman Pai is righteously indignant and is promising change after Saturday's Hawaiian scare. He should be. That's his job. It's ours in the media to make sure the work gets done after the initial bluster. Neutrality on this issue, net or otherwise, is a non-starter.