Preparedness & Recovery

Isle Emergency Officials Face Task of Rebuilding Credibility

'It’s never easy to regain trust, period — whether you’re talking about personal relationships, state government or people.'

by Dan Nakaso, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / January 31, 2018

(TNS) - News of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency shakeup and release of the Federal Communications Commission’s preliminary findings into Hawaii’s Jan. 13 false missile alert left many wondering Tuesday how much faith people will have in the credibility of the next warning.

“The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible threat,” said Ajit Pai, FCC chairman.

State Rep. Matthew LoPresti (D, Ewa Villages-Ocean Pointe-Ewa Beach) suggested that HI-EMA officials have a big task ahead of them.

STATE REPORT

Key findings from a state internal investigation released Tuesday:

* The employee who sent the false alert had confused drills for real events at least twice before and had been “counseled.”

* The employee who sent the false alert had been “a source of concern” for over 10 years.

* The employee who sent the false alert “just sat there and didn’t respond” when told to send a correction.

* Computer software design was poor.

* HI-EMA’s alert warning checklist was not detailed enough and did not contain a deactivation section or an “all clear” message, though these steps had previously been recommended.

* HI-EMA did not keep personnel training records, and technical training was lacking.

* HI-EMA mistakenly believed that it had to consult with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue an official notification that the alert was false.

* HI-EMA supervisors do not consistently ensure employees meet performance expectations. The department has morale and competency issues.

“It’s never easy to regain trust, period — whether you’re talking about personal relationships, state government or people,” LoPresti said. “People are more likely to pause than they were before, so it’s incumbent for the state to build up assurances and confidence in the system again. The question is how to do that. … We’ve been assured that if there’s a false alert, it will be followed up by another alert.”

Joe Walker, a 20-year-old University of Hawaii sophomore, shot widely seen cellphone videos of UH students sprinting across campus to get into buildings that were locked on a Saturday and said he’ll be more cautious if he gets another text alert.

“I think I stayed pretty calm, but it was definitely a traumatic experience,” Walker said. “In the future I’m not sure how seriously I’ll take it. I would definitely check multiple sources before I start freaking out. We’ve definitely had conversations about it, and the consensus is that everybody is going to take it with a grain of salt (next time). But we all feel more prepared and we’ve set plans in place. So it was definitely a good wake-up call.”

He’s not the only one who thinks future alerts may be called into question.

“They definitely have a credibility problem. People are going to be skeptical,” said Manoa publicist Jennifer Pang, who had purchased four Israeli-style gas masks for her family last summer and reinforced her stockpile of food and supplies after the false alert.

Asked how she’ll respond if she gets another HI-EMA text, Pang said, “I don’t know, to be honest. People are going to pause,” which could delay them getting to safety.

“If the alert comes via the phones and there’s no sirens or breaking news, people might reconsider sheltering in place right away,” Pang said. “Most people would be trying to get a second authentication.”

April Guillory, 44, of Ewa; her husband, Army Capt. Randall Guillory; and their two daughters huddled in their laundry room with their dog, Bella, on Jan. 13.

The family had trained on similar scenarios while they were stationed in Japan and South Korea, and April Guillory expects that she would react the same way if the same situation plays out again in Hawaii.

“I would definitely still regard it as serious,” she said. “I would believe it if I got a similar text. You definitely don’t want to be on the other end.”

Asked whether HI-EMA has a credibility problem, Guillory said, “At the end of the day, we know they’re there to protect us. If somebody had known better, they would have done better. So now that they know better, we expect them to do better. We’re all human. We all make mistakes.”

The night of the missile scare, Mayor Kirk Caldwell was asked how emergency management officials can restore the public’s trust.

“That issue of how do you build trust back — the way you do it at the end of the day is performing correctly,” Caldwell said that night. “It’s incumbent that the next test go smoothly. I believe it will and build trust that way. But it’s something we can’t take lightly, both what occurred today, but also that threat from North Korea. Hopefully, that will go away at some point, but we need to protect our citizens from the worst.”

John Cummings, spokesman for Honolulu’s Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday that Caldwell’s comments reflect the challenge facing the city’s emergency management officials, along with their counterparts at the state.

“We’ve just got to keep doing our jobs,” Cummings said.

Staff writer Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.

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