Well Within Range of North Korean Missiles, Hawaii Turns to Cold War Air Raid Sirens

Residents of the Pacific Ocean state might just be the first to start regularly hearing the loud alerts again.

Ben Franske via Wikimedia

On the same day North Korea test fired its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which very likely has the ability to hit anywhere within the United States, state authorities in Hawaii announced plans to resume monthly tests of air raid sirens on the islands. The idea probably now seems even more reasonable and could portend something of a renaissance for the rest of the country’s crumbling civil defense infrastructure.

Shortly before noon on December 1st, 2017, Hawaii’s Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System will go off in a test that the state government will combine with a more typical one for the Emergency Alert System. The sirens will sound a steady “Attention Alert Signal” tone for one minute, followed by another minute of a wailing “Attack Warning Signal.” A number of areas near Campbell Industrial Park on the island of Oahu will then hear a separate “whooping” sound, which, in actual emergency, would indicate a hazardous materials incident.

The Emergency Alert System test will then give residents the “all clear” on their radios and televisions. Further tests will occur every month. “There will be no exercise or drill on this day,” an official press release added about the December 2017 siren blasts, suggesting that there may be such events in the future.

According to Reuters, this is the first time these Cold War-era sirens have gone off since the 1980s. A separate report by Atlas Obscura says that Hawaii stopped testing of the systems entirely in the mid-1990s.

The video below features the sounds of wide array of different models of warning sirens and has examples of both the steady and wailing tones.

In announcing the plan on Nov. 28, 2017, Hawaii Governor David Ige said that the tests reflected a “new normal” in light of North Korea’s dramatic ballistic missile developments since the beginning of the year. In July 2017, the North Koreans demonstrated their first ever intercontinental ballistic missile (IBCM), the Hwasong-14, which experts estimated could reach Hawaii, Alaska, and California, at the very least.

“A possibility of attack today is very remote,” Ige added. “But we do believe that it’s important that we be proactive, that we plan and are prepared for every possibility moving forward.”

The U.S. military’s “Pacific Command would take about five minutes to characterize a launch, where the missile is going, which means the population would have about 15 minutes to take shelter,” Vern Miyagi, the administrator for Hawaii's own Emergency Management Agency, said at the shared press conference. “It's not much time at all, but it is enough time to give yourself a chance to survive.”

You can watch the entire press conference regarding the siren tests by Governor Ige and the other Hawaii state officials below.

This projection is based, at least in part, on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s assessment that a single North Korean missile carrying one 150-kiloton nuclear warhead exploding over Pearl Harbor – a major military target that could be the actual focus of such a strike – would kill 18,000 people instantly and injure another 50,000 to 100,000 across a miles wide blast radius. However, this does not take into account the possibility of multiple, simultaneous or near simultaneous impacts, or that the Hwasong-15 looks like it could accommodate a much larger multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon or more than one smaller warhead.

North Korean State Media

The HS-15 is truly a monster of a missile, and its broad and blunt nose cone could eventually carry multiple warheads and decoys, or one larger nuclear device.

It is possible that U.S. military could intercept some of these incoming missiles during an actual attack. Unfortunately, as we at The War Zone have noted repeatedly, the United States’ multi-part ballistic missile defense shield has yet to prove it can reliably take out incoming threats and has never had to go up against anything approaching a real world target.

At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2017, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford said that U.S. ballistic missile defenses could protect Hawaii. However, he made sure to add the caveat that his assessment was in regards to a “limited” IBCM attack and based on what the U.S. military then knew about North Korea’s capabilities. It is entirely possible his view of the situation has changed with the appearance of the Hwasong-15.

The “chance to survive” would be subject a host of other fact, as well. Hawaii’s civil defense infrastructure itself has no kept up with the continued growth of the islands’ population, leaving entire neighborhoods lacking even the limited comfort of an officially designated fallout shelter, according to CNN. Hawaiian authorities have not announced any plans to expand these facilities or add new ones to go along with the reactivation of the sirens.

Below is an old U.S. Civil Defense film about how to build your own family fallout shelter.

The state’s predicament is likely no worse than the situation across the rest of the country, either. This underscores the issues that the United States as a whole might face if it decides to reintroduce large-scale civil defense measures in light of a the potential for a North Korean nuclear attack.

After the end of the Cold War, as the threat of a nuclear conflict seemed to recede, federal, state, and local governments saw no need to maintain fallout shelters, bunkers, and other similar infrastructure. In 2006, the United States retired the old "Civil Defense" symbol and replaced it with a new "Emergency Management" logo for state and local emergency management organizations. In October 2017, Robert Blakeley, who created the official fallout shelter sign while serving with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, died at 95.

via Wikimedia

The old Cold War-era "Civil Defense" logo.

Covington County Emergency Management

The post-2006 Emergency Management logo.

Federal Highway Administration

Robert Blakeley iconic "Fallout Shelter" sign design.

Even before the Soviet Union collapsed, authorities demolished or sold off hardened facilities as advances both in early warning technology and enemy weapons rendered them obsolete. Many Americans alive today still remember dubious “duck and cover” drills that were almost certainly more of a panacea than anything else.

What money has gone into maintaining and modernizing such sites has focused largely on specialized facilities to shelter the president of the United States, their advisers, and other senior leaders in order to maintain a “continuity of government” in the event of a nuclear attack and preserve America’s ability to launch a potentially world-ending retaliatory strike. You can read about those plans in detail in The War Zone’s own extended chat with Garrett Graff, author Raven Rock: The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself While The Rest Of Us Die.

You can watch one of the famous Cold War-era "Duck and Cover" public service announcements below.

The lack of interest in maintaining these warning systems and shelters extends to air raid sirens, which officials in many cases have left to rot and rust away. The poor state of equipment is so widespread and well known that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) official manual on “National Warning System Operations” doesn’t mince words in its instructions about how to operate the equipment.

“FEMA recognizes that there has been a reduction in the number of active siren systems throughout the warning community,” the handbook states bluntly. “However, for those communities that still operate sirens as well as other systems, the following apply to warn the public to take immediate action.”

The guide has sections detailing both the standardized attention and alert and attack warning signals that Hawaii will use in their upcoming test. In 1955, the United States government discontinued the use of a third “all clear signal.” Officials determined that nuclear fallout would make it dangerous for anyone to come out of their shelters even after the attack was over and instead recommended the use of a radio to receive further instructions.

Even in cities with sirens still in place, they may be non-functional. After 9/11, many jurisdictions went to test these systems only to find out that they had fallen into disrepair, or worse.

JustInn014 via Wikimedia

A badly weathered warning siren in Marshfield, Wisconsin in 2009.

“Since 9/11, a lot of cities are revisiting their old systems,” Ed Wise, an Atlanta-based funeral-home director with a side business selling and restoring sirens, told The Baltimore Sun in 2004. “A lot of times, they try to crank them up after 40 years and they just catch on fire.”

Hawaii, which is often at risk of severe natural disasters, such as typhoons and tsunamis, appears to have maintained and upgraded much of its siren infrastructure, to help alert residents in those situations. There are readily available pictures of solar-powered siren towers on Oahu and elsewhere in the state.

Depending on how the new, regular siren tests go in Hawaii, and if state officials end up adding in actual preparedness exercises or drills, other states could decide to follow suit and implement their own plans. With the Hwasong-15 out in the open, its no longer just the Hawaiian islands that are in range of North Korea's missiles. 

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com