Hawaii emergency officials have drawn sharp criticism for bungling the state’s months-old missile-warning system, following this past weekend’s false alert fiasco.

But don’t look for U.S. Pacific Command or some other federal agency to take over the state’s warning system any time soon, said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

The move would require a years-long process to change federal law involving the National Defense Act, the federal Telecommunications Act, or both, Schatz told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

“The federal government is not going to do this for us,” Schatz said.

Senator Brian Schatz in Washington DC office4. 19 jan 2017
Sen. Brian Schatz, pictured here in 2017, and Sen. Mazie Hirono on Wednesday discussed Hawaii’s false missile alert with officials from the Pentagon and other federal agencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Those comments came shortly after Schatz and his Hawaii colleague in the U.S. Senate, Mazie Hirono — along with staff for Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa — met in Washington with officials from the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Instead, Hawaii — the first state in the country to enact a cellphone alert system for a missile strike — can rely on those federal agencies’ to offer examples of best practices going forward, Schatz said.

The federal agencies should complete their reviews of Hawaii’s false alert within the next couple of months — before the end of the 2018 legislative session, he added.

Then, Hawaii should tentatively aim to have a revamped missile-warning system that the public can trust by this summer, Schatz said.

“We rolled it out too early. We clearly were not ready for prime time,” Schatz told reporters Wednesday. “Hawaii was the first to try this out. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake.”

Some Didn’t Get The Alert

On Tuesday, as part of her joint call with Gabbard for a congressional inquiry into Saturday’s false alert, Hanabusa had wondered “to what extent the DOD should have greater control or oversight over military and/or national security emergency alerts issued by state emergency management agencies.”

Schatz on Wednesday called the idea that PACOM might “tap into the system” in the future “worthy of consideration.”

At Wednesday’s Honolulu Police Commission meeting, the department’s new police chief, Susan Ballard, said HPD also wants to get a direct line to PACOM in the future.

Some other points from the Schatz update Wednesday:

  • The FCC is “just not done investigating” on why some mobile phones in Hawaii got the alert and others didn’t, Schatz said, but that the agency is hearing anecdotally that “significant portions of the population didn’t get it. “
  • Similarly, authorities continue to collect information on why sirens went off on some military bases and even in some civilian areas.  “It’s pretty clear that different parts of the emergency preparation and response were triggered by the push alert, and most parts of the response were not,” Schatz said.
  • As the crisis unfolded Saturday, key leaders couldn’t get in touch with one another as quickly as they should have. “Not everybody could get PACOM on the phone,” Schatz said. “Mayors and governors and members of Congress were having trouble getting through to each other.”
  • Some authorities learned quickly that the alert was a mistake but assumed Hawaii emergency officials would get the word out sooner. 

It took HEMA 38 minutes to send out the second push alert declaring a false alarm — and the state agency didn’t connect with FEMA on how to respond until 20 minutes after the first alert went out.

Asked whether he was confident in Gov. David Ige’s response to the false alert, Schatz paused and then offered that “notification about a disaster only works when you have the people’s trust.”

“And state government has a road to travel before that trust is rebuilt,” he added.

About the Author