By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — State emergency officials in Hawaii made an enormous mistake over the weekend.

They issued an emergency alert to cellphones, televisions and radios telling everyone in the state a missile was headed their way.

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It took another 38 minutes to let people know it was a false alarm.

All of the news coverage has viewers like Craig from Richfield and Stewart from St. Paul wanting to know: How does Minnesota’s Emergency Alert System work?

Located in the state’s Emergency Operations Center are the pod of computers that have the software required to send statewide emergency alerts. There are three people trained to send them out to broadcasters — television and radio — and cellphones.

“I’m very confident my staff has the protocols in place that that would not happen here,” said Kevin Reed, Minnesota’s deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Minnesota has the ability to send alerts statewide or to specific counties. Except for testing the system, HSEM officials said it has never sent an alert statewide.

(credit: CBS)

Minnesota uses the system rarely to send alerts to specific counties. In 2016, there were alerts for a road closure in Martin County, an ammonia spill in McLeod County and sex offenders on the loose in Grant County.

“We take this seriously,” Reed said. “We only send out alerts that need to be acted upon.”

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There are seven steps required before sending out an alert, according to John Dooley, the manager of Minnesota’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System. The first is to set the destination: cellphones, broadcasters or both. After that, someone would chose the event. Those options include a required monthly test, a required weekly test, a civil danger warning, a nuclear power plant warning, an immediate evacuation notice and a shelter-in-place warning.

A civil danger warning was the one sent mistakenly in Hawaii.

Then, someone would set the duration of the warning and the location: either county or statewide. After that, someone would write the script or choose from a small set of pre-scripted warnings.

Unlike Hawaii, Minnesota does not have a pre-scripted warning about missile attacks.

A computer operator then sets the audio before completing the final step: sending the alert.

“After we press that button, there’s another screen that will pop up and will tell us, ‘Do you really want to send this?'” Dooley said.

Reed said Minnesota’s system does have the ability to recall a mistake or immediately send out an additional message saying it was a mistake.

Amber Alerts are sent out through the same system, but they are under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Weather alerts are sent through the National Weather Service.

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The federal government also has the ability to send alerts nationwide.

Heather Brown