Lawmakers grill emergency officials for details in false missile alert briefing

On Saturday, Jan. 13, at 8:07 a.m., an employee at Hawaii Emergency Management Agency mistakenly sent a statewide emergency alert to cell phones that read:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

The alert created widespread panic, and a follow-up alert wasn’t sent until 38 minutes later: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

On Friday, state lawmakers grilled Gov. David Ige and emergency officials for details on what exactly happened, and what’s being done to ensure the mistake is never repeated.

The governor and officials acknowledged the mistake and delay in correction were “unacceptable,” and exposed critical holes in the system that they’re actively addressing.

There are four ongoing investigations into the error with results expected to be released within the next 60 days:

  1. HI-EMA: Led by retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, the internal investigation will look into what happened on Saturday.
  2. HI-EMA: Led by Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, deputy adjutant general, the investigation will identify and implement improvements to the state’s emergency warning system.
  3. FEMA: What failed and what needs to be improved.
  4. FCC: Why some cell phones did not receive the emergency alert.

Related Story: FCC explains why some received emergency alerts while others didn’t

Maj. Gen. Arthur Logan, adjutant general, says HI-EMA had performed the drill at least 80 times prior to Saturday’s mistake.

“Did you not spot anything, problems prior going to this drill?” asked Sen. Donna Mercado Kim.

“Let me just say, we made a mistake on Saturday. We are working through this mistake,” Logan replied.

So far, the state has suspended all future nuclear missile drills.

Two people must now activate and verify missile launch notifications, and a cancellation alert has been added to the state’s list of templates.

Hara told lawmakers Friday that he has already made suggestions on improving the software used for disaster alerts.

Instead of using a drop-down menu to choose alerts, which the employee did on Saturday, Hara wants HI-EMA to display color-coded icon choices.

He also wants the ballistic missile test on a completely separate software system, and additional verification steps in the two-person process to ensure the proper text message is sent out to the public.

“It’s not just, ‘I click, you click.’ You need to provide credentials,” Hara said.

Lawmakers also expressed concerns over warning sirens. Some sounded, some didn’t.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said it will be installing new sirens, as well as retrofitting existing sirens.

“There are plans to add 109 new sirens statewide: 34 on Oahu, 26 on Maui, 6 on Kauai, and 43 on Hawaii Island. An additional 94 sirens statewide will be upgraded. The project is expected to take approximately 12 months. When it is complete, there will be 496 sirens statewide,” said Hi-EMA spokesman Richard Rapoza.

At one point, things got heated.

Related Story: VIDEO: Lawmaker storms off after heated exchange during missile alert briefing

We also learned that officials, including the governor, knew quickly it was a false alarm.

Logan says he confirmed in minutes that it was false.

“My gut told me this was not correct, and so I immediately went outside and called the state warning point. I was able to get through and talk to a supervisor,” Logan said. “At 8:09 I called the governor and told him this was a false alarm.”

Yet, the governor did not publicly acknowledge the confirmation until 8:24 a.m., when he retweeted HI-EMA’s cancellation notice and added “There is NO missile threat.”

A similar message appeared on his Facebook page six minutes later, at 8:30 a.m.

His communications office says that’s because they had to put out the alert, and he couldn’t reach them because cell phone service was jammed.

The following is a timeline of what occurred:

8:05 a.m. (approximate) – A routine internal test during a shift change was initiated. This was a test that involved the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alert, but no warning sirens.

8:07 a.m. – A warning test was triggered statewide by the State Warning Point, HI-EMA.

8:10 a.m. – State Adjutant Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, validated with the U.S. Pacific Command that there was no missile launch. Honolulu Police Department notified of the false alarm by HI-EMA.

8:13 a.m. – State Warning Point issues a cancellation of the Civil Danger Warning Message. This would have prevented the initial alert from being rebroadcast to phones that may not have received it yet. For instance, if a phone was not on at 8:07 a.m., if someone was out of range and has since came into cell coverage (Hikers, Mariners, etc.) and/or people getting off a plane.

8:19 a.m. – Tweet from @TulsiGabbard: “HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.”

8:20 a.m. – HI-EMA issues public notification of cancellation via their Facebook and Twitter accounts: “NO missile threat to Hawaii.”

8:24 a.m. – Governor retweets HI-EMA’s cancellation notice.

8:26 a.m. – Text alert from HNL.info: “State Warning Point has issued a Missile Alert in ERROR! There is NO threat to the State of Hawaii!”

8:30 a.m. – Governor posts cancellation notification to his Facebook page.

8:45 a.m. – After getting authorization from FEMA Integral Public Alert and Warning System, HI-EMA issued a “Civil Emergency Message” remotely.

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