After a Jan. 13 ballistic missile alert mishap spread panic and anger across the islands, Hawaii’s congressional delegation continues to press its case that the federal government — not the state — should issue such warnings.
“A missile attack is not a local question. The people who know first should be the people who tell the rest of us,” Sen. Brian Schatz said during a U.S. Senate committee hearing Thursday at the East-West Center. “It is my judgment that there is nothing more federal than an incoming ICBM” — an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Hawaii is the only state or locality so far to create an alert system for such an attack. In February, Schatz introduced legislation that would prohibit states from issuing those warnings and limit them to handling natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis.
That legislation, dubbed the “ALERT Act,” was later included in a Department of Homeland Security reauthorization package that awaits full Senate approval later this year, Schatz said after Thursday’s hearing.
If signed into law, it would wrest control of those alerts from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which erroneously sent the startling message to thousands of island mobile phones in January: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Many in Hawaii already know the chain of human and systemic errors that led to nearly 40 minutes of chaos and confusion before HEMA declared a false alarm. A HEMA employee mistook a drill for a real event. He was able to send out the alert without a second person checking it. Then, the agency had no plan for what to do next. Worse, it had no immediate way to reverse the alert.
HEMA leaders also thought they needed Federal Emergency Management Agency approval to issue a correction. They didn’t.
Much of Thursday’s hearing dealt with how to rebuild public trust in the emergency-alert system.
Schatz pointed to a “broken organizational culture” at HEMA. Even if the agency’s staff thought it had to wait for FEMA approval, someone there should have jumped to correct it anyway and “make sure all of us knew we weren’t going to die,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Arthur “Joe” Logan, who heads the state’s Department of Defense and oversees HEMA, told Hawaii’s congressional delegation that if either he, a deputy general, or HEMA’s former administrator, Vern Miyagi, had been at the agency’s State Warning Point in Diamond Head Crater when the alert went out, they would have taken that initiative.
Instead, Logan was at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam at the time, he said. With the phone lines busy he couldn’t immediately reach Miyagi or State Warning Point.
Logan acknowledged in his testimony that HEMA had rolled out its plan to respond to a missile attack before it was ready, but he felt the move necessary given the heightened rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who previously served as that island’s civil defense director, has said that he repeatedly warned Miyagi prior to the mishap that HEMA was moving too quickly with its missile-alert drills.
On Jan. 13, warning sirens reportedly blared on several of Oahu’s federal military bases even though a state agency had issued the false alert.
On Thursday, military leaders gave a glimpse into why that happened: A command-duty officer at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam activated the base’s alarm system after receiving HEMA’s missile alert on his phone, Rear Adm. Patrick Piercey, the director of operations for the U.S. Pacific Command, told the panel.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono called that chain of events “alarming,” but Piercey said he needed to give his commanders enough leeway to make decisions during an emergency — even if it resulted in the wrong choice.
“I can’t squash initiative because I need that in cases where things aren’t exactly always by the book,” Piercey told Hirono.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa pressed Piercey on whether that officer had followed protocol. Piercey told Hanabusa that local military officials considered HEMA “an indicator” of a ballistic-missile attack, but that the commander who sounded the alarm should have validated the threat through his chain of command first.
Schatz called the process convoluted.
“The idea that there should be a regional alert about an incoming ICBM is preposterous,” he said.
One of the nation’s five members of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, also testified at Thursday’s hearing.
The state’s Emergency Alert System plan, which outlines how local broadcasters, weather officials and other personnel should proceed in an such an event, is more than 10 years out of date, Rosenworcel said.
The plan needs a “significant rewrite” to address changes in technology and how the public gets its information, added Hawaii Association of Broadcasters President Chris Leonard.
Currently, the EAS plan is subject to annual FCC “confirmation” — but that amounts to little more than checking that it’s been filed, Rosenworcel said. The FCC could force the state to more regularly update its plan by making that confirmation more meaningful and forcing it to include best practices, she added.
Schatz agreed. The FCC shouldn’t just receive those reports online “and put them on a dusty shelf,” he said.
But he also wondered what those best practices would look like — no one else implemented a missile-alert system before Hawaii.
He also expects the FCC to issue a full report on the matter in the coming weeks. At Thursday’s hearing, an FCC deputy chief said it’s coming soon but didn’t specify when.
HEMA, meanwhile, has suspended its preparedness campaign and siren testing for ballistic missile threats. Hirono left the hearing about midway through for what her staffers said was a previously scheduled meeting. Before leaving, however, she urged officials to ramp up diplomacy to ensure the islands would never face a real missile attack.
Full video of the Senate Field Hearing On Hawaii’s False Missile Alert
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.