Hawaii Gov. David Ige learned two minutes after a text alert went out warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack that it was a false alarm, top emergency officials testified Friday.
But the governor’s Twitter feed didn’t inform the public of the all-clear until 15 minutes later. Then, six minutes after the Twitter post, the governor’s Facebook page also pushed out the false-alarm notice Saturday morning.
State lawmakers questioned why Ige’s office took so long to react in helping to inform the public during a hearing at the Capitol on the false missile alert. Their concerns reflected the public’s growing frustration over how long it took to stop the panic that gripped the islands after the alert went out.
The officials in charge of the warning system repeatedly called the situation “unacceptable” Friday. Ige himself spent about 30 minutes testifying before a panel of about 30 legislators, but let the state’s emergency-response leaders handle detailed answers to questions.
The state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, told lawmakers that once the false missile alert went out at 8:07 a.m., he confirmed with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency that it was an error and called Ige at 8:09 a.m.
“I don’t know what the governor was doing — I wasn’t with him at the time,” Logan said. “I know he was preparing to go to an event and this circumvented all of that.”
After the hearing, Cindy McMillan, Ige’s communications director, said that Ige contacted her sometime after he received Logan’s call and she then posted the 8:24 a.m. tweet. She then contacted the office’s digital media specialist, who posted it to Facebook.
McMillan added that she doesn’t know exactly when Ige first contacted her because her cellphone log only retains the most recent 100 calls she’s received.
It took 38 minutes for recipients of the original text warning to receive an all-clear text.
Lawmakers spent about two and a half hours peppering emergency officials with questions, although the interim report that Ige has assigned Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara to complete isn’t due for 30 days.
Notably, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency chief Vern Miyagi told the lawmakers that he had “misunderstood” in the heat of the moment whether his agency needed approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send out the second alert — and that contributed to the delay.
“I misunderstood the requirement. I said that we needed authorization. I was wrong,” Miyagi said Friday. “It would’ve saved some time.”
HEMA’s State Warning Point, the division responsible for sending out the alerts, had conducted 26 prior internal drills on the ballistic missile alert, Logan told lawmakers. It was the 27th — sent out by a division warning officer with more than 10 years’ experience at the agency — that went awry.
“It wasn’t the fault of just one man in a room pushing a button. It was the entire system,” Rep. Matt LoPresti said at the hearing.
Tempers briefly flared at the hearing when Rep. Gene Ward, a member of the Legislature’s five-member Republican minority, attempted to ask a third question instead of yielding to the next lawmaker.
“This is a national tragedy and you’re rushing us and I think you’re putting misplaced priorities … while the nation is looking at us,” Ward told Rep. Gregg Takayama, who chairs the House’s Public Safety Committee. “I’m not finished. Please don’t cut me off. This is a national issue and you’re not being reasonable.”
Ward was visibly upset and abruptly left the auditorium.
Representatives of the Federal Communications Commission attended Friday’s hearing. Initially, they told lawmakers that their superiors had instructed them not to answer questions.
“I misunderstood your earlier conversation with me,” Takayama told James Wiley, an attorney and investigator with the FCC.
Wiley later told the panel that he could give answers after all.
A key question that remains is why some cell phone users didn’t get the original missile alert while others did. Wiley offered some potential reasons: Phone users can opt out of the emergency alerts in advance in their settings; some phones aren’t capable as sold to receive the alerts — or they’re limited geographically in where they’ll send them to users.
Also, Wiley said, users might have been out of their coverage area when the alert went out and returned once state officials had already cancelled it. (HEMA officials had previously offered that as a reason.)
For his investigation, Hara said that HEMA officials have already walked him through what happened during Saturday’s false missile alert. The interface that the warning officer used should be easier to navigate — offering color-coded buttons instead of a drop down menu, he told lawmakers.
Furthermore, officials should isolate the internal drill, which they use to rehearse a missile alert, from the real thing, Hara added.
When HEMA’s warning officers click on the alert it goes out across two different pathways: the Wireless Emergency Alert for cellphones, and the Emergency Alert System, which sends messages across television and radio, officials said.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen questioned why HEMA didn’t immediately use AM and FM radio stations to broadcast the false alarm — especially since the agency’s own October 2017 plan calls for it to use those stations to reach the public.
“These are the gaps that we have to address,” Miyagi told her. “AM/FM radio is still the most concrete — the most solid method of communication during a disaster.” Later, Miyagi testified that one of the key flaws HEMA faced Saturday was that once you “put a message in, you can’t put in another message.”
Sen. Glenn Wakai wondered whether HEMA could issue warnings using emojis — the icons now frequently used in phone messages to express ideas or emotions — to alert Hawaii visitors who don’t speak English.
It’s a concept that the FCC is considering, Wiley said.