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Hawaii congressional delegation pushes military to take over missile alerts

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U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, holds a hearing on the false missile alert with a panel of representatives from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Federal Communications Commission and United States Pacific Command. From left: Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Mazie Hirono and Sen. Brian Schatz start the hearing.

UPDATE: 12:04 p.m.

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation told Rear Adm. Patrick A. Piercey, U.S. Pacific Command director of operations, that they want the military to take responsibility for alerting the public about any incoming ballistic missile which would be an act of war.

“We want the origination of a notification of a missile alert to start with people who know,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said at today’s congressional hearing on the Jan. 13 false alarm at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said there are too many layers for notification and verification that would be improved if PACOM, which has verification responsibility, also sent out the alert from a drop-down computer menu.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said Hawaii residents were confused because the military set off some sirens in response to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s false alert.

“I believe people would have a lot more confidence if HI-EMA was out,“ Hanabusa said.

Piercey said PACOM continues to work with HI-EMA, although notification exercises have temporarily paused. Piercey’s only response to lawmakers calls to remove HI-EMA from the process was that existing agencies currently have those responsibilities.

UPDATE: 11:20 a.m

Antwane Johnson, director of continuity communications for FEMA, testified today that the agency is highlighting best practices to help guide alerting authorities as they review and update their policies and procedures.

Johnson said FEMA will launch an online forum this spring to enable alerting authorities and software developers to share lessons learned.

He said FEMA also has updated its 2015 recommendations to Alert Origination Software Providers. FEMA recommends that vendors providing alert software make alert and warning capabilities more effective and include steps to mitigate errors, he said.

Johnson said an effective, timely, and far-reaching public alert and warning system is critical to communicating threat to public safety and providing people with guidance during times of crisis.

UPDATE: 11:00 a.m.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was required to submit its emergency plan to the FCC annually but U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa questioned why it wasn’t updated for 10 years.

“Was the situation here that Hawaii just submitted the same decade-old plan every year and it was confirmed by the FCC,” Gabbard asked.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said part of the reason improvements are needed is that the act of filing plans should be more than bureaucratic.

Rosenworcel said she thinks the legislation that has been submitted by Hawaii’s congressional delegation should be considered.

UPDATE: 10:35 a.m.

The FCC, which issued a preliminary report Jan. 30 on its investigation into the false missile alert in Hawaii, presented new recommendations during today’s hearing on the Jan. 13 bogus missile alert.

“There were serious failures at the point of alert origination the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. These errors were human and operational,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “These problems were compounded by the lack of safeguards to ensure that a false alert would not be transmitted.”

Rosenworcel said improvements need to be made in Hawaii and across the country because false alerts have happened elsewhere including in Polk County, Iowa and Riverside County, California during the past year. In short, it can happen anywhere, she said. Rosenworcel recommended:

>> State Emergency Alert System plans be filed with the FCC.

>> FCC institute a reporting system for false alerts.

>> FCC should explore future alert capabilities — from embedded multimedia to many-to-one communications enabling public feedback. It also should explore offering alerts to audio and video streaming services.

>> Consider the ALERT Act to address failures at the alert origination point.

UPDATE: 10:15 a.m.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is expected to open the hearing on the Jan. 13 false ballistic missile alert by announcing plans to introduce the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act of 2018, legislation designed to streamline the delivery of emergency warnings by requiring the FCC to set best practices.

Schatz said the legislation also aims to update the process for creating and approving the state plans that organize these emergency response systems. It would also examine the feasibility of expanding the emergency alert system to distribute warnings to audio and video streaming services delivered over the internet, he said.

The READI Act is a companion bill to the ALERT Act, which Schatz introduced earlier to require state, tribal, and local governments to follow best practices when originating and sending alerts to the public. Together these bills are designed to improve oversight and operation for the entire emergency alert system.


U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is holding a hearing today on the Jan. 13 false ballistic missile alert, which plunged some Hawaii residents into 38 minutes of uncertainty.

A panel of representatives from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Emergency Management Agency and United States Pacific Command have joined Schatz at a U.S. Senates Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing.U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Mazie Hirono also are participating in the hearing, which is being held at the East West Center.

The incident occurred when a state warning officer, who worked for HI-EMA, responded to a drill as if it were an actual event. The colossal blunder, which became an international news story, has been the subject of an FCC investigation, a Federal Emergency Management Agency review and a state inquiry and action plan. It is also prompted two Congressional measures, the Alert Act and the Civil Defense Accountability Act, designed to improve alerting as well as civil defense transparency and accountability.

The warning officer was fired following the event, which also led to the resignations of HI-EMAs former administrator Maj. Gen. Vern Miyagi and HI-EMAs former executive officer Toby Clairmont. In mid-March, HI-EMA hired retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Travis as its new administrator.

Schatz, who has proposed making the federal government responsible for alerting the state in a nuclear event, said the hearing is about moving forward and fixing the emergency alert system.

“By bringing together state and federal officials, we can understand what happened, what resources are needed to make it right, and how we can improve the system overall,” said Schatz.

The FCC was expected to elaborate on the preliminary report that it issued Jan. 30. That report said that HI-EMA didn’t have reasonable safeguards in place to prevent human error from resulting in the transmission of a false alert, and that the agency didn’t have a plan for what to do if a false alert was transmitted.

James Wiley, an attorney advisor for FCCs Cybersecurity and Communications Reliability Division, told federal lawmakers Jan. 30 that the bureau would issue a final report, which would include recommended measures to safeguard against false alerts and to mitigate their harmful effects if they do occur.

The bureau is expected to share at least some of those recommendations today.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said state and local governments need to learn from Hawaii’s mistakes.

The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an emergency alert, it is indeed a credible alert. Otherwise, people won’t take alerts seriously and respond appropriately when a real emergency strikes and lives are on the line, Pai previously told lawmakers.

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