Always Investigating

Warning officer certifications caught up after Saturday's scare

Several people tasked with issuing emergency alerts were not federally certified to send messages through the computerized warning system, despite the missile alert practice ramping up well before Saturday's false alarm.

Always Investigating learned that while pushing for answers from emergency officials about training.

None of the three un-certified workers were on-shift Saturday, out of a staff of 10 warning officers and four supervisors. Those three warning officers have since have completed the required FEMA federal course and received the certification.

But that means a certified operator still made the mistake despite the FEMA stamp of approval, and despite software training the vendor told Always Investigating that users should have received.

The state also says its system for wireless alerts, like we got Saturday, was set to only do one alert per topic at a time. Half an hour later, they figured out another way thanks to a worker from a different branch who wasn't even in the building Saturday morning.

"The second message was actually produced by a telecommunications branch employee who took it upon himself to say, okay, how can we send a follow-on message," explained Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, speaking on behalf of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. "So he used a slightly different protocol, composed the app or created the app, wrote the message, and then remotely connected in on a secure line to send that particular message in. It was a very creative workaround."

Emergency officials also contacted FEMA, first explaining it to the public Saturday as needing authorization, then later telling us Monday they were seeking guidance.

"The coordination with FEMA, which really lasted less than a minute, was just to ensure, 'Hey, we think that this meets the criteria for this particular type of messaging, do you agree?" Anthony said. "And in about 45 seconds, FEMA said, 'Yes, we agree with that."

FEMA told us first early Monday that Hawaii could have done that on its own, and didn't need its approval or intervention.

The software maker AlertSense showed us how the standard system already had tools for creating a quick follow-on message, whether from scratch or just backing up.

Click here to view the full walk-through from AlertSense.

Always Investigating tracked down AlertSense as being the source platform for the recent emergency alerts, though neither AlertSense nor HI-EMA are publicly confirming or denying who the vendor is, citing security.

We asked HI-EMA officials, since both FEMA and the vendor pointed out that a correction by a trained operator could have and should have been made immediately on their own, do they agree?

"If they're talking about a correction to a WEA (wireless emergency alert), there's never been a correction on a WEA ever before Saturday," Anthony said. "WEAs had been designed nationwide to send out information only on a one-time basis. You'll never get a follow-on, you'll never get 'It’s been canceled.’ If it's a tsunami warning, for instance, you're not going to get the all-clear through your wireless."

As Always Investigating reported Monday, however, FEMA’s standard template for state and local users of its alert backbone, called Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), does spell out that operators should have an "easily accessed 'Cancel’ function" set up ahead of time.

Click here to view FEMA's emergency communications plan.

AlertSense showed us how there are many steps along the message-sending process in which a mistake can be caught and a message corrected before it was too late.

AlertSense also pointed out to us how the operator - even after re-confirming and sending the live-alert -- could have just backed up and even went through the same missile template, overwrote it to say FALSE ALARM, and hit send again.

We asked HI-EMA if it could have taken that approach.

"I would say that's probably not the sort of thing somebody working in the state warning point would be tasked to do at that juncture," Anthony said.

Hawaii has now programmed a false-alarm quick link in its alert templates.

During Friday's briefing, Maj. Gen. Arthur "Joe" Logan, Hawaii adjutant general, told lawmakers that if a missile attack was happening, FEMA would likely know first from being directly in contact with the military, and that FEMA could and probably would send its own message first.

We asked why the state is doing these alerts if the feds, so close to the source, can get there first?

Anthony said it's because FEMA might not be able to micro-target its message to just our state, and because FEMA is not integrated into all the other alert resources, like the sirens and other locally deployed outreach.

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