HI-EMA should follow FCC’s lead
There is no question that the recommendations from federal officials on new protocols for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency should take effect, governing how alerts to missile warnings should go out.
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There is no question that the recommendations from federal officials on new protocols for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency should take effect, governing how alerts to missile warnings should go out. The embattled agency itself is already taking steps to improve, implementing common-sense routines that should have been its boilerplate operating system all along.
The question is over how the state can restore public faith in its control over emergency response, given the disastrous false-alarm episode at the beginning of the year.
But while there is a congressional push to put military authorities in charge of the alert system, that may be more of a political expression of distrust rather than a change for the better.
Simply ensuring that HI-EMA implements all the Federal Communications Commission’s recom-
mended changes, and doing so with full transparency to the public, would seem the wisest course.
This week the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released its final report on the way HI-EMA botched its Jan. 13 missile-attack training. That episode culminated in an actual warning going out to thousands of Hawaii residents, via cell-phone alert. Most did not get word that it was sent in error for at least 38 minutes, a period of life-or-death terror for many who embarked on a frenzied search for shelter and information.
That error will be tough to erase from memory. And the takeaway conclusion from the report — that “a combination of human error and inadequate safeguards contributed to the false alert” — makes it even more upsetting.
The FCC investigation, conducted in late January, followed two internal probes into the event and revealed numerous HI-EMA problems. Some of the report’s prescriptions already have been adopted, including the requirement that two officials sign off on any alert going out.
But more must be done. For example: The report noted that the text alerts were not delivered uniformly. This may require standardizing agreements with cell phone providers and putting out the word to customers about subscribing and setting up phones to receive them.
Better protocols for cancelling an alert and sending the all-clear in a timely way are also crucial.
The FCC found particular fault with HI-EMA’s setup of the computerized alert system, which did not separate the test environment from the interface one used to post a live alert.
Among other points cited: The supervisor deviated from procedure by “creating a new script that blended elements from the standard drill initiation” and the message for a real attack, by including the phrase “This is not a drill.”
As dismaying as it is to learn of how simple communications were bungled in this case, these are problems HI-EMA can — and must — fix. Transferring custody of the alert system to the military, as Hawaii’s congressional delegation has proposed, might cause more problems than it would solve.
This was the focus of a congressional hearing held last week at the East-West Center. “We want the origination of a notification of a missile alert to start with people who know,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. All four members want the military to take responsibility for alerting the public about future attacks.
But such a duty could require a national system that serves other states as well. While future drills should include PACOM participation and verification, handing over the complete notification process would be unnecessary, given that HI-EMA has the infrastructure for the full range of alerts.
What people need instead are detailed updates and confidence that all the recommended changes have been made, and are faithfully followed. Until that happens, Hawaii can’t truly rest easy about the management agency’s ability to manage — what could be a real emergency, next time.