Public Safety & Homeland Security

Delegation Calls on Military to Handle Missile Warnings

The recommendation was made at a hearing that examined the causes of a Jan. 13 false ballistic missile alert, which cast doubt on whether the state Hawaii Emergency Management Agency should handle future notifications.

by Allison Schaefers, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / April 6, 2018

(TNS) - All four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation urged the U.S. military Thursday to take responsibility for alerting the public about any future ballistic missile attacks, taking that role away from the state, which botched the job in January.

The delegation made that recommendation Thursday at a hearing held at the East-West Center in Honolulu. The hearing, called by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, sought to examine the causes of a Jan. 13 false ballistic missile alert, which cast doubt on whether the state Hawaii Emergency Management Agency should handle future notifications.

“We want the origination of a notification of a missile alert to start with people who know,” Schatz said.

The false alert occurred when a state warning officer, who worked for HI-EMA, responded to a drill as if it were an actual event. The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which has responsibility for notifying the state about a real missile threat, quickly verified that the Jan. 13 threat was false, but it took HI-EMA an agonizing 38 minutes to issue an all-clear.

The state warning officer was fired following the event, which also led to the resignations of HI-EMA Administrator Maj. Gen. Vern Miyagi and Executive Officer Toby Clairmont. HI-EMA has implemented new safety checks and in mid-March hired retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Travis as its new administrator.

The colossal blunder, which became an international story, has been the subject of a state inquiry and action plan, a Federal Communications Commission investigation and a Federal Emergency Management Agency investigation.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said the issuing of missile alerts to the public would be streamlined if PACOM, which is responsible for monitoring incoming missiles, also sent out the alert.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hana­busa said it’s an issue of trust, and most people would trust the military to get the alert right. “I believe people would have a lot more confidence if HI-EMA was out,“ Hanabusa said.

When asked by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono whether the military could send out missile alerts, Rear Adm. Patrick A. Piercey, U.S. Pacific Command director of operations, said the process is “not technically supported, but I could imagine it could be technically supported.”

Schatz unveiled a new bill Thursday called the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act of 2018, which is designed to streamline the delivery of emergency warnings.

Schatz said the legislation would examine expanding the emergency alert system to distribute warnings to audio and video streaming services delivered over the internet, he said.

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel testified that the FCC recognizes that “ballistic missile attacks are a completely different category in the panic that ensues and also in the damage that can occur.”

“We might need to treat those differently, so for all of you who have introduced legislation or supported legislation to do so, I think that’s a really good idea,” Rosenworcel said.

Maj. Gen. Arthur “Joe” Logan, state adjutant general, said part of HI-EMA’s challenge on Jan. 13 is that “we really started flying the plane before we built the whole plane.”

Schatz said there weren’t any best practices when Hawaii became the only state to start testing its nuclear warning system in response to heightened threats from North Korea, and there really aren’t any now.

Logan said improvements have been made and the “system does work,” as evidenced by the state issuing a quick all-clear following a Jan. 23 tsunami warning.

Following the hearing, Logan said the federal government could take over missile alert notifications if it were properly trained; however, “it would be easier for the state to continue since we already know how to do it.”

Logan said he would support a change if the federal government “could be as accurate and timely and specific to the targeted area as we can, so that we don’t cause widespread panic.”

Gov. David Ige, who did not attend the event, said in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “Now is the time for us to work together without the politics of blame, to improve the state’s notification system.”

“The state is happy to work with federal and county partners to continue to develop the best emergency warning system possible so that our community can be made aware of natural and man-made disasters as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Ige said. “If Congress decides to change who issues notifications, we are happy to comply.”

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