Emergency management employee had ‘history of confusing drill and real-world events’

Major personnel changes at Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were announced Tuesday, as state emergency officials released the findings of an internal investigation into a false missile alert earlier this month.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, at 8:07 a.m., a HI-EMA employee 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.”

At a news conference Tuesday, officials confirmed the employee who sent the initial alert was fired on Friday, Jan. 26, and revealed he “had a history of confusing drill and real-world events.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who spearheaded the internal investigation, said the employee who issued the alert claimed he did not hear the “exercise, exercise, exercise” message that five other employees in the room heard. Once the alert was sent, Oliveira said the employee “seemed confused. He froze, and another employee had to take over his responsibilities.”

Download: False alarm incident’s internal investigation (PDF)

Oliveira said the drill that caused the error was also carried out during the previous shift change with no issues. Similar practice drills have been carried out 26 times in the past.

Oliveira also noted that the employee had performance issues in the past, and there were at least two incidents where he mistakenly thought a drill was an actual event. One was during a tsunami test, another for a fire alert.

Officials say corrective actions previously taken by the employee’s supervisor included counseling and on-the-spot corrections.

“His supervisor took action when he realized or was told about maybe a lack of performance,” said Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, state adjutant general. “These could have been other performances, whether during exercise drills… Those are all exercises that they used throughout their checklist. The nature of those other counseling statements, we’re not sure exactly why, but I’d need to talk to his supervisor.”

Oliveira also said that co-workers even complained about the officer.

“There are statements from other coworkers that they didn’t feel comfortable working with him, that they felt that he was not capable of doing his job,” he said.

As for why the employee continued to remain in such a critical position, Logan called it a “valid question, but as I said earlier, his supervisor with his employees was taking what he felt was appropriate action, I believe, in counseling and mentoring his subordinates so that they could perform their job.”

The written testimony by the employee was submitted to Oliveira after he requested it. Oliveira added that he could not release the statement until after his investigation was complete.

Officials also said a second employee resigned before any disciplinary action was taken, and a third is in the process of being suspended without pay.

Officials confirmed the resignations of HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi, effective Tuesday, and executive officer, Toby Clairmont.

The agency sent out the following statement on Miyagi’s behalf:

“I want to thank Governor David Ige and Maj. Gen. Joe Logan for giving me the opportunity to administer the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and serve the people of Hawaii. It has been an honor and a privilege, and I will always look upon it as one of the finest most rewarding challenges in my life.

“To everyone I have worked with at HI-EMA, thank you. None of us could have done this alone; it took an effort by a skilled, dedicated and professional team who shared an absolute commitment to the safety and security of our community. We faced some big events, from Iselle and the Iao Valley flood, to threats like the Puna Lava Flow and Dengue Fever. We prepared for numerous tsunamis and hurricanes, and helped Hawaii come to grips with the idea of a North Korean missile. I encourage you to look back on each of those events and remember how important your efforts were to our families and neighbors, the people who rely on us. You have the skills and capacity to do what Hawaii needs. Don’t give up. Never quit. Lives depend on you.

“And to the people of Hawaii, recent events have cast a bright light on our emergency preparedness, and caused many of you to consider whether you are ready for the emergencies we will surely face. Don’t let that feeling pass without taking action. Here it is from me one last time: Know where to go, what to do, and when to do it. Have a plan. Be safe, and know that whatever happens, good and courageous people will be there to help.”

Investigators also point out the day shift supervisor was out in the hallway at the time of the drill when he should have been with the officers.

“In my investigation, he should have been at the state warning point in the room,” Oliveira said.

“At this time based on the facts and circumstances we have not taken disciplinary action against that supervisor,” Logan said.

Earlier Tuesday, the FCC released its preliminary report on the false missile alert. The report says the HI-EMA worker who triggered panic across Hawaii by sending a false ballistic missile alert believed Hawaii was actually under attack.

The FCC reported that at 8:05 a.m. a midnight shift supervisor initiated a drill by placing a call to the day shift warning officers pretending to be “U.S. Pacific Command.” The supervisor played a recorded message that started with the words, “exercise, exercise, exercise.”

State officials added that the message also ended with the same “exercise, exercise, exercise” message.

“While other warning officers understand that this is a drill, the warning officer at the alert origination terminal claimed to believe, in a written statement provided to HIEMA, that this was a real emergency, not a drill.” – FCC preliminary report

HI-EMA is still under a thorough review, led by Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, deputy adjutant general, to identify and implement improvements to the state’s emergency warning system. Officials say the state is looking to hire an outside firm to assist him.

According to its procurement website:

“The scope of services will include the development of an action plan that improves the preparation and posture of federal, state and local goverments in their approach to responding to state emergencies, and specifically address the failures and proposed recommendations relating to the ‘false missile attack alert’ that occurred on January 13, 2018. The action plan will contain a Threat Assessment, a Summary of Events leading to and on January 13, 2018, and a plan for the way ahead. The recommendations will include changes that should be made by the state, and potential changes at the local and federal levels.”

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