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‘Button pusher’ feels ‘pretty guilty, devastated’ over false missile alert

  • STAR-ADVERTISER STAFF

    The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who issued the false missile alert and was subsequently fired talks to the media at the office of his attorney Michael Green. The fired worker’s face has been blurred to protect his identity.

Hawaii’s so-called “button pusher” says he feels bad about what he put the public through when he mistakenly sent a statewide missile alert and that he wants the truth to come out.

“At the time I was 100 percent sure it was the correct decision, but you know what happened. I did what I was trained to do, and I feel very badly about what happened,” he said today in his first public comments since Jan. 13 when he sent a panic-inducing cellphone alert warning of an impending ballistic missile strike.

The now-fired warning officer said he could not hear the drill message fully because someone in the office picked up a phone receiver, interrupting the broadcasting of the message through a loudspeaker. He said he pushed the alert out quickly because he believed that the threat was real, and warning officers are taught to “minimize the time” while completing the checklist and issuing an alert.

Still, “I feel pretty guilty and devastated. The last couple of weeks have been pretty hard,” the man said during an interview this afternoon at the downtown Honolulu office of his attorney Michael Green. The man, who asked not to be identified because he fears for his safety, has been in hiding on the mainland. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials said they have received death threats directed at the employee.

“He’s worried about getting killed,” Green said Thursday. “I think they came close to people figuring out who it is, and that clearly exposes him to great bodily harm.”

Green said the man, who was fired Jan. 26, has been “scapegoated” by the state and HI-EMA. Green is assisting him in filing an employment appeal to get his job back and said that they will likely sue the state.

“All that was missing (at HI-EMA) were clowns and balloons. The place was a circus and they got their scapegoat,” Green said. “You are talking about the most important agency in the state in the lives of children and families, and look at the condition that it’s in.”

The man, who is in his 50s, had never been in the military, but was an almost 30-year veteran of the defense industry. He had worked for HI-EMA for 11-1/2 years. He was a member of HGEA bargaining unit 3 and held a security clearance, he said. Prior to that he worked in Washington, D.C., until he moved to Hawaii in 2002, where he worked for a defense contractor at Pearl Harbor.

“I’ve spent my whole career in the defense industry,” the former warning officer said.

But ballistic missile drills were new, he said. Hawaii is the only state that does them, and HI-EMA had been doing ballistic missile drills since only September.

The level of training at HI-EMA was “inadequate” to keep up with all the changes, he said.

During the ill-fated drill, the man said, there were four other people in the room with him, but his supervisors were absent. The man said the office at the time was “chaotic” and that its “energy felt different than a drill.”

“In my opinion, I don’t think the state is equipped to do the work,” he said, adding that he thinks the task should fall to FEMA or the military.

A state internal investigation, headed by Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, and a scathing Federal Communications Commission preliminary investigation were released Tuesday showing multiple parties were at fault.

After the findings were revealed, state Adjutant General Maj. Joe Logan announced sweeping personnel changes at HI-EMA, including the warning officer’s termination and resignations from two top officials, HI-EMA Administrator retired Army Maj. Gen. Vern Miyagi and HI-EMA Executive Officer Toby Clairmont. Logan said another supervisor, who was in the union and was in charge of warning protocol, also faced an unpaid disciplinary suspension.

Oliveira said the warning officer confused the false alert with a real threat, saying he did not hear the beginning of the recording that started with “Exercise, Exercise, Exercise” — although five others handled the alert correctly.

The button pusher said he couldn’t hear the drill language because the message wasn’t properly broadcast. Additionally, he said, the script contained “This is not a test,” which to his knowledge was not in accordance with prior drills.

The FCC report indicated a number of anomalies that contributed to the transmission of the false alert. For starters, FCC investigators said miscommunication between the midnight and day shift supervisors resulted in a lack of supervision during the drill. The FCC affirmed the button pusher’s version that the drill script language was atypical because it included “This is not a test.”

Oliveira said Tuesday that the scripts could vary. Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, HI-EMA spokesman, said neither the midnight nor day-shift supervisors had been disciplined as a result of the investigation.

A key finding in the FCC report also revealed that Green’s client believed the islands were actually under attack. Ige and HI-EMA officials, in several public explanations on the false alarm, had never disclosed that the warning officer actually thought a missile attack was imminent, instead saying that he pushed the “wrong button” or selected the wrong option from a drop-down computer menu.

Green said many inconsistencies must still be probed.

“No one knows what’s going on in that place. When they said that he pushed the wrong button, he didn’t. He pushed the button that he intended to push because he believed the threat was real,” Green said.

On the day of the incident, HI-EMA’s Clairmont described the so-called button pusher as a model employee. But, according to Oliveira’s report, the employee has been a source of concern for more than 10 years because of poor performance. Oliveira said the fired employee had previously confused drills for real events, once for a fire and once for a tsunami. Those events were corrected on the spot, and the employee was “counseled.”

The button pusher said the state’s portrayal is “unfair and totally false.” He said he was never counseled about prior mistakes and that none were documented. He said he filled in as a supervisor for the department at least once a week.

Oliveira’s report said Green’s client did not assist with the corrective process or cooperate with Federal Communications Commission and internal investigations, although Oliveira did acknowledge that the man provided him with a written statement that was included in his investigation and later transmitted to the FCC.

The man said he wasn’t asked to assist in the investigation Jan. 13, and was off Jan. 14 and 15 because those were his normal days off.

“They trusted the supervisors more than the workers. The supervisors didn’t know the story and told the leaders false information,” he said. “They talked to other people and got the wrong story. That’s why I’m coming out now.”

The man said when he returned to work Jan. 16, his boss asked him to provide a written statement, and he complied. He said he was not interviewed by FCC investigators became he was on sick leave when they came.

The man said Jan. 16 was his last day at the office. After that he called in sick because he felt physically and mentally ill. He said he went to the mainland for a few days because he felt unsafe, but returned today to provide his side of the story to the media.


>> For the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s full coverage of Hawaii’s missile alert scare, go to 808ne.ws/Hawaiimissilescare.


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