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Botched missile alert inspires broad FCC recommendations

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GEORGE F. LEE / glee@staradvertiser.com

On Jan. 13, Vern Miyagi, left, then-administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and Gov. David Ige face the media at the Hawaii Emergency Management Center in Diamond Head as they explained the false missile alert that was sent out earlier in the day. The Federal Communications Commission has issued its final report on the blunder.

The Federal Communications Commission said future ballistic missile warning tests in Hawaii should not include words that hark back to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — specifically, “This is not a drill.”

The FCC recommendation is one of many on a lengthy list in the agency’s full report on the Jan. 13 Hawaii false missile alert. The report, based on the findings of two FCC field investigators who were here Jan. 18 to 26, blamed the event on a “combination of human error and inadequate safeguards.”

The false alert occurred when a state warning officer, who worked for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), responded to a drill as if it were an actual event. The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which has responsibility for notifying the state about a real missile threat, quickly verified that the Jan. 13 threat was false, but it took HI-EMA an agonizing 38 minutes to issue an all-clear.


The FCC has issued broad recommendations for state, local, tribal and territorial emergency management agencies, including:

>> Conduct regular internal tests in a controlled and closed environment.

>> Require more than one credentialed person to validate the message prior to transmission.

>> Direct alert origination software providers to separate live alerts from test environments and include a confirmation prompt.

>> Limit employee permissions to create or modify any internal drill message.

>> Develop protocols, governing tests, uses and corrections to alerts.

>> Require supervisor approval and supervision of internal tests and proficiency training exercises.

>> Develop standard operating procedures for responding to false alerts.

>> Plan to use social media as a complementary means of communications.

>> Consult with State Emergency Communications Committees on a regular basis — at least annually — to ensure that Emergency Alert System (EAS) procedures, including initiation and cancellation of actual alerts and tests, are mutually understood, agreed upon and documented in the State EAS Plan.

Source: FCC report, issued Tuesday

The main finding by FCC investigators was that “neither the false alert nor the 38-minute delay to correct the false alert would have occurred had Hawaii implemented reasonable safeguards and protocols.”

Their report said confusion over the phrase “This is not a drill,” which deviated from language used in HI-EMA’s standard operating procedure, was part of the reason the now fired HI-EMA warning officer transmitted a false ballistic missile alert.

The man told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview in the aftermath of the botched missile alert test that he was “100 percent sure” that the threat was real and had acted as he was trained to do. The Star-Advertiser agreed not to reveal his identity because of reported death threats for his role in the incident.

The FCC report said no other warning officers mistook the drill for a real-word event. However, it noted that “This is not a drill” has “regrettable resonance” in Hawaii, due to its historic use on Dec. 7, 1941, as part of a warning message about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Best practices

The FCC credited HI-EMA with making several improvements to prevent recurrence and issued broad recommendations to help prevent emergency management agencies across the country from making similar mistakes.

The FCC has pledged to “continue to work with Hawaii, as well as with other federal, state, local, Tribal and territorial officials, to promote awareness of these best practices and to help ensure our nation’s alerting systems are reliable and effective.”

HI-EMA spokesman Lt. Col. Charles Anthony said the FCC’s report closely mirrors an earlier internal report made by Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira and a state action plan from Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara. Anthony said HI-EMA is already taking steps as outlined in the Oli­veira and Hara reports.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in an email that the report echoed discussions from a hearing on the false missile alert held last week at the East-West Center. There all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation urged the U.S. military to take responsibility for alerting the public about any future ballistic missile attacks.

“We have more work to do,” Schatz said. “Thanks to the FCC’s work here, we have an even stronger game plan for how to fix the alert system and restore the public’s trust.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said in an email that “the state needs to demonstrate a sense of urgency in evaluating, responding to, and implementing the report’s recommendations.”

U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard said in an email that the FCC’s report “provides direction on the actions necessary to close the gaps in our notification system that were exposed by Hawaii’s false missile alert.”

However, Gabbard said that “further investigation and answers are still needed in certain areas, including why some wireless phones in both urban and rural areas across our islands did not receive the phone alert and how we can ensure complete wireless emergency alert coverage across the state.”

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hana­busa said, “We are still left with the primary question, ‘Is Hi-EMA the right entity to do the ballistic missile alert or should that be something that is taken over nationally?’

“Our major problem now is that people don’t have any confidence in the system. If the PACOM sends the missile alert, people would believe it,” Hanabusa said.

Final Report and Recommendations: Hawaii Emergency Management Agency by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd

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