After False Nuclear Alarm, Hawaii Reassigns Employee and Tightens Protocols

by | January 16, 2018

By Allison Schaefers

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission issued a stinging rebuke Sunday to Hawaii's emergency management as ripples from Saturday's nuclear scare spread far and wide.

And the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency confirmed Sunday that some staff members have received death threats in the aftermath of the colossal blunder.

Hawaii residents and tourists spent a terrifying 38 minutes Saturday thinking that an attack was imminent all because a state employee in a Diamond Head bunker clicked his mouse twice.

The mistake shocked many in Hawaii and elsewhere and left them questioning the credibility of the government that they count on to protect them from geopolitical woes like heightened tensions with North Korea.

President Donald Trump, state and federal lawmakers and agencies also are pushing for answers, which are slowly unfolding as investigations commence.

So far, HI-EMA has reassigned the employee who made the mistake.

"He'll still come to work; he just won't be doing the same job," said Richard Rapoza, the agency's public information officer. "The reassignment was done pretty quickly. We know that he didn't do it on purpose and that he made a mistake."

Rapoza said the agency also has implemented a new protocol that will require two people to send missile alerts.

"One person will make the selection off the menu, and a second person will respond to the 'Are you sure' confirmation," he said. "That confirmation message was there before, but it now requires two separate people."

Rapoza said the department also has confirmed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it can use the agency's alert system to notify the public so that it "now has a process to immediately retract a false message if necessary."

Rapoza said the department has now written a script for that purpose. HI-EMA also is conducting an internal review and plans to release an incident report by the end of the week, he said. The department also will brief state legislators Friday at 10 a.m. during a meeting that is open to the public.

Rapoza said the agency already has briefed some members of Hawaii's congressional delegation and is cooperating with a Federal Communication Commission inquiry.

 

'Serious weaknesses'

"I'm not sure what FCC's intention is, but we welcome any inquiry and we will cooperate," he said. "We know that we need to rebuild the public's trust, and transparency needs to be part of that. "

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement Sunday saying that the false emergency alert was "absolutely unacceptable" and "caused a wave of panic across the state -- worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert was issued."

About three minutes after an 8:05 a.m. alert went out, the head of the emergency management agency, Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, the state adjutant general, verified with U.S. Pacific Command that there was no launch and notified Honolulu police. Thirteen minutes after the erroneous text, HI-EMA finally posted to Facebook and Twitter that it was a false alarm, but it would take another 25 minutes for a correction text alert to go out at 8:45 a.m.

Pai said the FCC's investigation into the incident is underway, and the investigators have been in close contact with federal and state officials, gathering the facts about how Hawaii's false alert was issued.

"Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert," he said. "Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies."

Pai said steps must be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

"Federal, state and local officials throughout the country need to work together to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what's necessary to fix them. We also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out," he said.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said the incident "exposed serious weaknesses," which is why he's working closely with the FCC to investigate, identify vulnerabilities and develop solutions.

"This system failed miserably. We need to improve it and get it right," Schatz said.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she is addressing Hawaii's preparedness failure through the Armed Services Committee in Congress, but urged leaders not to stop there.

"What makes me particularly angry is that the people of Hawaii and this country live with the fear of a missile attack at all," Gabbard said in a statement. "I hope that leaders in Washington and the president truly understand the terror that Hawaii's families just went through and heed this wake-up call about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war."

Gabbard, who appeared Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," also urged Trump to immediately enter into direct talks with Kim Jong Un, without preconditions, to denuclearize North Korea.

 

'Sitting ducks'

Ralph Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, said the false threat made North Korea's posturing all too real. But Cossa doesn't think it will shape Kim Jong Un's game plan.

"The North Koreans are masters at trying to get us to pay them for the absence of bad behavior," Cossa said. "I think at a minimum they are probably amused, maybe even encouraged, but I don't think it makes a future attack any more likely. I continue to say that the probability is very, very low."

Peter Tarlow, a Texas-based expert in tourism safety, said Hawaii "might get laughed at" but, barring any other black-swan events, will probably emerge stronger.

"I think this will morph into a major debate over missile defense -- that is separate from the state of Hawaii. I think you'll get more missile defense, which is what you need so that you aren't sitting ducks in the middle of the Pacific," said Tarlow, who served as safety consultant to the Olympics and helped Aruba's tourism industry recover from the disappearance and killing of U.S. teenager Natalee Holloway.

While the state's tourism economy is fragile, Tarlow said it would take a cumulative effect to produce lasting dampening. The story made headlines around the globe, leading national and international newscasts. But by Monday, Tarlow said coverage likely will turn to why the nation celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the next "stupid thing" Trump says.

Still, Tarlow urged Hawaii to take inspiration from Israel, which has booming tourism despite conflict.

"They don't have a 15-minute warning; they have about a minute and a half," Tarlow said. "What Hawaii just experienced is what it's like for Israelis every day. But they have a great missile defense system, and every home and building, including hotels, has a bomb shelter. If there's a problem, people know what to do."

That wasn't the case Saturday for many of Hawaii's 1.4 million or so residents. The event also affected Hawaii's tourists, who on any given day comprise 240,000 statewide, with some 100,000 on Oahu. While some managed to miss the morning event entirely, there were plenty of anxiety and inconvenience to go around.

Gov. David Ige issued an apology to Hawaii residents and visitors Sunday. Ige's spokeswoman, Cindy McMillan, said he spent much of the day working with his team to ensure that this unfortunate situation doesn't happen again. He will provide an update to the public today, she said.

"As a state government, we must learn from this unfortunate error and continue to prepare for any safety threat to Hawaii's residents and visitors -- whether it is a man-made threat or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tsunami," Ige's statement said. "We must also do what we can to demand peace and a de-escalation of tensions with North Korea."

(c)2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser