(TNS) - It took Hawaii emergency management 23 minutes to connect with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a state employee triggered a false ballistic missile alert.
“The state called us that morning to discuss the false alert and to ask for technical guidance, which we provided during that call. We can confirm that the call came in at 8:30 a.m. HST,” FEMA spokeswoman Jenny Burke said in a statement Wednesday.
According to Saturday’s timeline, a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee mistakenly broadcast a ballistic missile threat alert at 8:07 a.m. Just three minutes later, at 8:10 a.m., Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, state adjutant general, reached the U.S. Pacific Command and confirmed that the threat was false.
But the agency took until 8:45 a.m. to issue official notification that the threat was false, resulting in 38 minutes of terror for some. HI-EMA mistakenly believed that it had to consult with FEMA to issue a retraction. That step, which FEMA has said wasn’t needed, is one factor in the lengthy delay.
There are reports of Hawaii drivers running off the road, children hiding out in manholes, and one man claimed that he had a stress-induced heart attack.
“Obviously, there were unacceptable delays. I mean it makes me angry just to recount that 20 minutes,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said during a Wednesday press call.
Schatz criticized the agency’s timeline saying that it appears “they did a lot of things consecutively rather than all at once” when seconds mattered because “people thought that they were going to perish.”
Schatz said everyone in Hawaii should have known that the alert was false as soon as Logan knew.
Criticism about the retraction delay is just the latest hot-button issue for the state and HI-EMA. The Federal Communications Commission confirmed two commission staffers arrived in Honolulu Wednesday to work with an FCC field agent in Hawaii on the investigation. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a stinging rebuke to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Sunday.
The state Legislature also has asked HI-EMA to brief them during a joint hearing at 10 a.m. Friday.
U.S. Reps. Colleen Hanabusa (D-urban Honolulu) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-suburban Oahu, neighbor islands) have requested a congressional inquiry to discuss if distributing national security alerts should remain a state duty. Since HI-EMA’s false broadcast triggered sirens on some military garrisons, Hanabusa and Gabbard also want to give consideration to enabling the military to de-link its mass notification system from false alerts.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) secured a commitment Tuesday from Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to ensure that FEMA works with the state so that it has clarity on the proper protocol and procedures for issuing and retracting an alert. Hirono also made a Senate-floor speech Wednesday calling for a “thorough, transparent investigation.”
“We need a full accounting of the human and system failures that occurred. And we need to identify and put in place specific steps to make sure something like this never happens again,” she said.
Hirono said relief in the alert has given way to public anger — that there was a false alarm, that it took 38 minutes to call it off and that there was even a missile threat at all.
HI-EMA is undergoing an external review at Logan’s request. Gov. David Ige issued an executive order on Monday appointing Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, deputy adjutant general, to create an action plan within 30 days and issue a formal report within 60 days.
While some have criticized the Monday morning quarterbacking, Schatz said intense scrutiny is needed if only to identify areas where improvements need to be made.
“We shouldn’t assume that the flaws that we already know about this system are the only flaws in the system,” he said.
Sen. Will Espero (D-Ewa Beach) called the incident “a comedy of errors,” and said he and other lawmakers would continue pushing HI-EMA to address current weaknesses in their system and to be more proactive about planning for scenarios that could arise.
HI-EMA is cooperating with all inquiries, said Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, a Hawaii National Guard spokesman who was fielding calls for HI-EMA Wednesday. In the meantime, he wants the public to know “there was no dithering” Saturday.
Anthony said the main issue HI-EMA faced was that the computer application to retract the faulty message didn’t exist. It took 10 to 15 minutes for a HI-EMA employee, who was working remotely on a laptop with an encrypted line, to compose the message and create an application, he said. HI-EMA doesn’t currently have scripts or applications to retract any other emergency warnings, like tsunamis, hurricanes, or earthquakes, either, Anthony said.
“That’s really a terrible answer and it’s not acceptable,” Espero said. “There needs to be much better planning and communication.”
The one-minute call to FEMA to get approval to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to send a civil emergency message was only a small part of Saturday’s timeline, Anthony said. Lack of existing technology was the main reason for official retraction delays, followed by communication problems.
“It took several minutes for HI-EMA to reach FEMA,” Anthony said. “I’m sure there were multiple communication attempts to reach FEMA and other places, too.”
Anthony said HI-EMA employees, like many Hawaii residents, were getting the, “All circuits are busy please try again later” message.
Ige said Wednesday that even he made “five to 10 (unsuccessful) calls” while trying to confirm the alert and assess the situation.
A reason for the communication woes among top brass on Saturday is that they are not yet hooked into the nation’s $6.5 billion FirstNet program, which creates a nationwide broadband network that would give first responders priority call access.
Reports from cellphone users across the state were spotty. Some, including Espero, said they did not get the alert even though their cellphones were on.
“We do know that not everyone received a message (Saturday),” Ige said.
Ige said he’d like more knowledge about how effective cellphones were, but federal regulations currently interfere with tracking. Ige said he’d like those restrictions addressed so the state could send test messages over cellphones during monthly siren tests. Ige said he’d also like FirstNet fully implemented since the program would continue to function even if telephone circuits or cell systems were loaded.
Anthony said that no one in the state has been connected to FirstNet during year one of the program. AT&T, the national vendor, has five years to put that structure in Hawaii, he said.
“If FirstNet were up, we’d be part of a local network and we’d have priority. We don’t have that capability now,” he said.
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