Faster corrections and training changes called for after latest false emergency scare

Local News

Figure out how to tell the public immediately that there is no danger after false alarms. That’s what the mayor and lawmakers want from anyone able to trigger emergency sirens and alerts.

After Honolulu police dispatch accidentally set off emergency sirens Wednesday evening, it took tweets from the mayor’s office and eventual mobile alerts and press releases from HPD and state emergency management to clear things up. county leaders want a faster way to correct false alarms and prevent them from happening in the first place.

Outdoor sirens blared across Oahu — and even in Kahului – Wednesday at 5:05 p.m. and continued through 5:07 p.m. KHON2 fielded hundreds of calls wanting to know what was going on. No official information was made available for 6 minutes after the initial siren sounding.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell says he was at a meeting in Waimanalo when he heard the sirens.

“When the siren went off, I got concerned and immediately had one of our guys, Jim Howe who is head of EMS, make a call and determined that it was an error,” Caldwell said. “We quickly then got out a tweet issued by the mayor’s communication office saying it was a false alarm.”

The mayor’s Twitter message was at 5:12 p.m. Then, couple minutes later, at 5:14 p.m. HPD sent out its mobile alert via the HNL.info app stating: “False emergency warning activation” and “there is no current emergency.”

HPD Chief Susan Ballard said it was HPD’s error during a dispatch training session.

“I totally apologize for any inconvenience to the public,” Ballard told KHON2. “After the missile scare this is something that I’m sure did not sit well with people, and I totally understand that.”

“I think that shows her willingness to step forward even when there’s bad news,” Caldwell said, “to accept blame when there’s blame to take and then to talk about how to do better.”

Always Investigating found out that nine different state and county agencies are able to activate outdoor sirens — so not just HiEMA (the state Hawaii Emergency Management Agency), but every county’s police department and every county’s emergency management agency.

“County emergency management/civil defense agencies, which includes police dispatch centers, are primarily responsible to activate the All-Hazard Outdoor Siren Warning System for events such as tsunamis, hurricanes, lava eruptions, brush fires, hazardous material events and/or dam breaches,” a HiEMA spokesperson said. “If the County is unable to activate their sirens, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s State Warning Point in Diamond Head acts as the backup. Therefore, it was appropriate for the Honolulu Police Department to train on siren activation.”

HPD said in a statement: “HPD is an integral part of the state’s emergency alert system and serves as the 24/7 back-up to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and Honolulu Department of Emergency Management. HPD works closely with the two agencies on disaster response training and monthly siren testing.”

Always Investigating asked Caldwell: What will you do in the coming days to make sure that anybody who can fire off alarms with the county infrastructure has a prevention against mistakes?

“Obviously we do want to sit down and take about what happened and what can we do to be better,” Caldwell said, “and one of them is to make sure those kinds of mistakes cannot happen in real time, and if there’s a mistake, an easier way to recall it or get information out. We should have programs in place to quickly get it out to all of you. How do we tighten up the time from 6 minutes to 5 minutes to 3 minutes to 1 minute?”

“I’ve asked this morning, is there some way this is automatic,” Caldwell added, “so we don’t have to have our communication department at city hall actually tweet it out, it’s something that could happen almost immediately.”

As to who among all those agencies can fire off sirens when necessary, the mayor says they’ll look at establishing a pecking order.

“Right now, it’s whoever thinks they have the notice they have to send out an alert would do that,” Caldwell said. “Could be HiEMA, could be HPD. I think in most cases it’s going to be HiEMA and our Department of Emergency Management. They should be the ones that control this, but HPD, a first responder, they’re critical to have that ability, although we’re going to have to question what the line of authority is going to be. There should be a chain of command. There should be a limited number of people who can do it.”

County lawmakers also want to see some changes, among them Honolulu City Councilmember Tommy Waters who chairs the Public Safety and Welfare Committee.

“I just got off the phone with the chief,” Waters told Always Investigating. “One of the things they learned was in the dispatch room you cannot hear the siren, so that’s something that we need to change.”

“So did they even know it was going off right away?” KHON2 asked.

“I can’t speak to that,” Waters said, “but it doesn’t sound like it if they couldn’t hear the sirens themselves from dispatch.”

HPD acknowledges the accidental 5:05 p.m. activation wasn’t and cancelled until 5:07 p.m.

Waters, too, wants to see more preventive measures and instant ways to send out corrective messages.

Always Investigating asked: The fact that there is still no oops button or oops message after the state’s false missile alert crisis in January 2018, shouldn’t all agencies have that by now?

“Absolutely, and again these trainings should not be conducted on live consoles,” Waters said. “I mean, this is now twice that it’s happened and once is too many times. The message should come out immediately from the same console that it was a false alarm, or a training.”

After the January 2018 false missile alert, state and federal lawmakers held hearings and independent panels. Waters says the county council will wait and see on this one.

“If we don’t get the answers that we’re looking for, at least answering our questions, then yes I think it’s appropriate to do a hearing,” Waters said, “but I’d like to see what her (Ballard’s) further statement and investigation shows.”

HPD said in a statement this afternoon they “will be requesting additional equipment from the state to upgrade the alert system and enable quicker notifications of siren activations.” Training computers are not available but they say they’ll train using cards with computer screenshots, not live computers, from now on.

Always Investigating has asked all other county emergency management agencies and police departments if they will be making similar changes to their warning systems after lessons learned from the missile and the HPD false alarms. We will report back with any changes they plan to make.

In January 2018, the man who triggered the false missile alert was let go by HiEMA, and the agency’s administrator stepped down. HPD said no disciplinary action will take place against the any staff involved in the training incident.

“This was an honest mistake, and we’ve made changes so that this doesn’t happen again,” Ballard said. “Our 911 call takers, radio dispatchers and supervisors are hard working and dedicated, and they’re on the front lines when something like this happens. They understand the gravity and the implications. We sincerely apologize to the public for the distress and alarm that was created.”

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