The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency “button pusher”
who sent a bogus missile alert that triggered panic across the islands Jan. 13 is not cooperating with
either a Federal Communications Commission investigation or two
internal investigations and has not returned to work.
“We are quite pleased with the level of cooperation we have received from the leadership of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency thus far,” Lisa Fowlkes, the FCC’s Homeland Security Bureau chief, testified Thursday in Washington, D.C., before a Senate hearing on the missile alert mishap. “We are disappointed, however, that one
key employee, the person who transmitted the false alert, is refusing to cooperate with our investigation. We hope that person will reconsider.”
The FCC sent two investigators to Honolulu but got no cooperation from the HI-EMA employee, Fowlkes said.
The unidentified “warning officer” also is not cooperating with two internal HI-EMA investigations, one looking into the events of Jan. 13 and another probing the agency’s overall operations, according to Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, spokesman for the state Department of Defense, which overseas HI-EMA.
The key questions for the investigations are why the false alert was sent and why it took 38 minutes to correct it on cellphones.
The employee has since been reassigned to an unspecified job at HI-EMA but has not returned to work since the mishap, Anthony said.
The employee initially gave a written statement Jan. 13 but is no longer cooperating, Anthony said.
“Initially he did provide a statement of his actions that day, but now he is not cooperating,” Anthony said. “He’s choosing not to have further engagement with other employees at the Emergency Management Agency who have attempted to reach out to him.”
The employee has not been disciplined, but faces the possibility of punishment, which could include termination, Anthony said.
Toby Clairmont, HI-EMA’s executive officer, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Jan. 15 that the warning officer was cooperating with investigators and had not been disciplined.
“If we were to do something arbitrary like terminate him, we would lose his input into the process,” Clairmont said at the time. “We want … the truth of what happened.”
Clairmont also said that the warning officer — a 10-year-veteran — and his family had received “dozens” of death threats.
Clairmont initially said all of the agency’s 10 warning officers are exempt, nonunion employees. But HI-EMA spokesman Richard Rapoza said Thursday that the warning officer belongs to the Hawaii Government Employees Association union and is an “exempt” employee, meaning he is paid a base salary and not paid by the hour.
Clairmont has since announced his own, upcoming retirement.
At the start of Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said he plans to introduce legislation giving the U.S. Defense and Homeland Security departments the responsibility to notify the public of an incoming missile attack instead of HI-EMA.
“A missile attack is federal,” Schatz said. “A missile attack is not a local responsibility. Confirmation and notification of something like a missile attack should reside with the agency that knows first and knows for sure. In other words, the people who know should be the people who tell us. That is why I’m introducing legislation with Sens. Harris, Gardner and others to make it clear that the authority to send missile alerts should rest with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. These agencies have to work with the state and local Emergency Management Agencies when they get the word out so that the public is safe and informed.”
The hearing came ahead of a similar hearing in Honolulu that Schatz is planning, but details have not been announced.
Some senators on the committee expressed support for turning over missile alert responsibility to federal officials — while revealing concerns about gaps in the nation’s emergency alert system from Alaska to tribal nations to “rural America.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, R-Nev., said Spanish-
language alerts that went into affect in 2016 cannot be understood by Tagalog-
speaking Filipinos in southern Nevada.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said some coastal radio stations in his state were not notified of Tuesday’s tsunami warning until 30 minutes after residents already had received text messages.
“It was very scary for hundreds, if not thousands, of my constituents,” Sullivan said.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said that “many tribal nations don’t have access to emergency alerts.”
And Scott Bergmann, senior vice president for CTIA — The Wireless Association, added that when it comes to emergency alerts, “rural America knows we have real challenges.”
Mike Lisenco of the National Association for Amateur Radio testified that amateur radio operators in Hawaii had conducted emergency drills with HI-EMA officials just 20 hours before the bogus missile alert went out.
Radio operators, based in part on information they monitored from a Coast Guard ship, were able within 13 minutes to notify people via radio that the alert was not real, Lisenco said.
“They were picking up information from a Coast Guard vessel,” Lisenco said. “They were able to disseminate that information freely.”
Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense and Homeland Security did not attend Thursday’s hearing, leaving many of the senators’ questions unanswered.
Fowlkes of the FCC was the only federal official who testified, and frequently said that other agencies need to address the senators’ questions and concerns.
In response to a question from committee chairman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., about who has the authority to issue a missile alert, Fowlkes referred Thune to FEMA or Homeland Security.
“The FCC does not have the authority,” she said. “We are not involved in any way in deciding who issues what alert.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., asked
Fowlkes, “How could one person trigger an alert?”
Fowlkes responded, “That’s actually one of the issues we’re exploring as part of our investigation … what happened and what Hawaii’s process was.”
Fowlkes also was noncommittal about several concerns expressed by senators, including Schatz.
When Schatz asked how “nontraditional” television viewers would see a missile alert sent over broadcast television, Fowlkes said, “That’s something we can certainly look at.”
But she was clear that, in contrast to what HI-EMA officials said on the day of the false alarm, they needed no federal authorization to issue a subsequent alert to cancel the initial missile warning.
“They did not need permission from either FEMA or the FCC,” Fowlkes said.