Loose ends remain one year after Hawaii’s false missile alert

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January 13, 2018 went from a normal weekend day to a statewide panic after what was supposed to be an inside drill at the state warning point accidentally blasted out as the real deal.  

The state had not set up its message software with a function to retract or send a quick correction.

Always Investigating asked the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, “Going into it, had there been any thought at the organizational level of, ‘Okay, we’re going to practice this truly worst thing that could happen to you alert, but what if it went wrong, what if we called it wrong?’ “

“I do not know,” Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator Tom Travis said. “I personally can’t say that wasn’t discussed. If I move ahead I will consider all risks.”

They have a retraction function these days, but last year figuring out a workaround took more than a half hour while many across the state hugged and kissed loved ones or made final goodbye calls. 

Heads rolled.

The alert sender was dubbed the “button pusher.”

He says he didn’t know it was a drill only heard the instruction ‘This is not a test.’

He got death threats.

“Did he believe that there was an incoming missile that day?” KHON2 asked.

“One thousand percent,” Michael Green, attorney for the former HI-EMA worker said.  “He was a supervisor for years.  He didn’t take stupid pills all of a sudden.  He said this is what I heard.  People said different things.  People were getting fired.  It was just that everything was pointing at him.”

Lawmakers from Hawaii to Washington demanded investigations. 

Leadership at the disaster agency was overhauled.

“The missile alert was very unfortunate to many people,” Travis said.  “It was appropriate that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency looked at itself very, very closely and that it was looked at closely by authorities above us.”

A governor-ordered investigation and report led to changes in structure and workflow, namely they’re not practicing missile drills, and very few things have a template ready to go in the alert system.

There are just a handful of natural and weather events.

Some lawmakers are still asking questions, including Representative Gene Ward, who demanded more answers from the governor last year at a contentious capitol hearing on the alert. 

Ward asked for video surveillance.

HI-EMA says the system views but doesn’t record. 

Ward also asked for audio tapes.

HI-EMA released only the test message that used internally for the drill before the message went out.

“I think for sure if we get out of the missile alert business, give it to the feds,” said Rep. Gene Ward.  “This should not happen again. I don’t think there’s any place in history where such a scare has been given to such a large amount of people.”

An FCC investigation found holes in how and whether various cellular networks receive and send emergency alerts. 

Many in Hawaii never got the initial alert.

Still undone is a report to the state legislature that lawmakers asked for last session that called for a review by a couple dozen agencies and officials.

“Including people from the governor’s office, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, president of the University of Hawaii, bring some very influential and responsible people and to have them review how we stood in preparedness to handle these things,” Travis said. “As you can imagine that process would take some time to get that group people together.” 

“Have they come together?” KHON2 asked.

“No and the answer is we didn’t have to coordinate it because of the events this summer,” Travis said. 
He’s referring to a very busy year with floods, lava and a slew of hurricane and tropical storm emergencies.

HI-EMA has asked for an extension until December 2019 for that report.

Some in congress want the military to take over any alerts having to do with such manmade disasters, that’s still pending, 

So if a missile is really fired our way, HI-EMA will still have to be the ones to tell us.

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