National Emergency false alarm happened before in 1971

National Emergency false alarm happened before in 1971
A test slide from the Emergency Broadcast system

The false alarm of a ballistic missile attack on Hawaii isn't the first time a civil defense emergency alert has accidentally gone out.  It happened on February 20, 1971, involving the national Emergency Broadcast System known to millions for the signature phrase, "This is only a test."

On that Saturday morning decades ago, it didn't appear to be a test.  The message clicked out on radio and TV station teletypes around the nation:


It contained the proper authentication code word: "HATEFULNESS".  It looked legitimate.  And just like in Hawaii, some went into a panic upon hearing the message.

But just as in the Hawaii incident, the widespread panic started with a simple operator error.  In 2018, authorities say it was the wrong button.  In 1971, it was the wrong tape: A teletype operator at an emergency center in Colorado accidentally played the wrong teletype punch tape during a test, which triggered the national emergency.  Worse, it set off confusion among authorities, who tried six times to cancel the alert but failed because they lacked the proper authentication code word.  Some 40 minutes after it started, the false emergency finally ended with another message and the correct word: "IMPISH."

WOWO radio in Ft. Wayne, Indiana was one of the stations that broke into programming with the emergency message, saying all programming was interrupted.  The station preserved a recording of the incident (which you can watch at this link) which started after the announcer finished playing a record from The Partridge Family.

The teletype operator responsible for it all, Wayland S. Eberhardt, was a 15-year veteran of the emergency operations center.  The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I can't imagine how the hell I did it."

The incident also revealed problems with the authentication system used to verify alerts.  According to a UPI report afterward, some station staffers couldn't find the word "HATEFULNESS" on their verification word lists -- if they had them at all, or knew where they were in the first place.  One station in El Paso didn't receive either the emergency message or the cancellation at all.

An investigation into the incident followed, but the fix -- according to a later news report out of Colorado -- involved moving the legitimate alert teletype tapes away from the test tapes and sealing them in a cabinet.  As for Mr. Eberhart, we know of no action taken against him.  He died in 1996.

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