False missile alert was sent by troubled worker

The Hawaii employee who sent out a false alarm earlier this month warning of an incoming missile attack had a troubled work history and said he misunderstood a drill and believed a ballistic missile was actually heading for the state, according to state and federal investigators.

The employee’s work history was detailed by a state investigation made public Tuesday that found he had “been a source of concern … for over 10 years” to his coworkers. On at least two other occasions, that probe found, this employee also “confused real life events and drills.”

A federal investigation released earlier Tuesday said the employee believed there “was a real emergency, not a drill” when he sent out the Jan. 13 alert that terrified Hawaiian residents. This contradicted the explanations previously offered by Hawaii officials, who have said the alert was sent because an employee hit the wrong button on a drop-down menu.

Authorities were apologetic after what Gov. David Ige (D) had called “a terrifying day when our worst nightmares appeared to become a reality.” Ige and other officials on Tuesday released the findings of an internal state investigation into the incident and pledged that they had made changes to the state’s emergency management agency.

The employee, who was fired last week, has not been identified, and state officials said his name will only be officially released once he finishes appealing the disciplinary action.

Authorities did identify one state employee who lost their job over what happened: Vern T. Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, resigned Tuesday morning and “has taken full responsibility” for the incident, said Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, the state adjutant general, who oversees the agency.

The state report released Tuesday described the employee who sent out the alert as having a poor history dating back more than a decade. Other members of his staff have said they did not feel comfortable with his work, the report said. The employee had been counseled and corrected on the spot, state officials said, but remained in his position.

The Federal Communications Commission, in its own preliminary report, said the state employee had argued that he did believe there was really an attack when he blasted out the alert.

The incident began when a night-shift supervisor decided to test incoming day-shift workers with a spontaneous drill, the FCC report stated. The supervisor managing the day-shift workers appeared to be aware of the upcoming test but believed it was aimed at the outgoing night-shift workers. As a result, the day-shift manager was not prepared to supervise the morning test, the FCC said.

Following standard procedures, the night-shift supervisor posing as U.S. Pacific Command played a recorded message to the emergency workers warning them of the fake threat. The message included the phrase “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” the FCC report said, but it also included “This is not a drill” — language used for real missile alerts.

The worker who then sent the emergency alert said they did not hear the “exercise” part of the message. This person declined to be interviewed by investigators, but the worker did provide a written statement, the FCC said.

According to the FCC report released Tuesday, this worker is the only one who apparently did not understand it was a drill.


An electronic sign let residents in Oahu know that an emergency alert Jan. 13 that said a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii was false. (Instagram/@sighpoutshrug/via Reuters)

Wireless emergency alerts warning of danger are typically sent out by state and local officials through a partnership between the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the wireless industry.

Practices vary from state to state over how they handle such alerts. In Washington state, for instance, any message about a possible missile alert would “undergo layers of scrutiny before it was sent,” Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department, wrote in an email.

Shagren said her state only has two pre-written alert messages — one related to tsunamis, another to volcanic activity — and each warning requires at least two people to approve before they are sent.

To address what happened in Hawaii, the state’s emergency management officials have said they will require additional approvals before alerts and tests are transmitted. The state suspended emergency alert drills and also plans to provide more warning before drills. Officials in Hawaii also say a second person will be needed to confirm sending out alerts.

The false alert on Jan. 13 was not checked by the Hawaii emergency management agency’s computer systems because there is little difference between the user interface for submitting test alerts and the one for sending actual alerts.

“Hawaii’s alert software allows users to send live alerts and test alerts using the same interface,” said James Wiley, an attorney adviser at the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. To send an alert, emergency management employees select a pre-written message from a drop-down menu on a computer. They then must click “yes” when the system asks “Are you sure that you want to send this Alert?”

When the alert hit cellphones across Hawaii, people began frantically trying to determine how long they might have to reach safety. Some sought shelter in their homes, while others described “mass hysteria” on the roads.

The alert came at an uneasy moment for many in the western United States. The mounting tensions with North Korea, exacerbated by the pointed war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, have stirred unease about a potential attack on U.S. soil.

Hawaii, given its location in the Pacific, stands as a possible target of a North Korean attack. In a remarkable sign of concern, Hawaii last year brought back its statewide Cold War-style siren to warn of a potential nuclear assault.

Navy Cmdr. David Benham, a Pacific Command spokesman, said in an email Tuesday that his headquarters is using the incident as an “opportunity to improve our internal processes as well as coordinate with state authorities.” He declined to comment on the specifics of those procedures, citing security concerns. “PACOM forces throughout the region are prepared to respond to any contingency,” Benham said.

Officials in Hawaii have also drawn criticism for how long it took them to correct the alert and reassure the public. Ige has said it took him as long as it did to weigh in because he had  forgotten his Twitter password.

Three minutes after the message was sent, the day-shift supervisor received the false cellphone alert, and the process of responding to the mistake began. The state emergency management agency notified Ige of the problem. Seven minutes after the alert was sent, officials stopped broadcasting the alert. But because there was no plan for how to handle a false alert, the agency could not issue an official correction.

It was not until 26 minutes into the crisis that officials settled on a proper way to inform the public about the all-clear, and workers began drafting a correction. It took another 14 minutes after that for the correction to be distributed.

The lack of a contingency plan reflected a critical failure on the part of Hawaii’s emergency management agency, said Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC.

“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” Pai said Tuesday. “Each should make sure they have adequate safeguards in place … The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an alert it is indeed a credible alert.”

In a separate action Tuesday, the FCC voted to approve new requirements designed to enhance the geo-targeting of cellphone alerts. This move is aimed at making the distribution of alerts more accurate so that those outside of an emergency area will not receive warnings that do not affect them. The FCC will also require cellphone carriers to allow consumers to review any alert for up to 24 hours after they receive them. Carriers will have until November 2019 to implement the changes.

From the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/01/30/heres-what-went-wrong-with-that-hawaii-missile-alert-the-fcc-says/?utm_term=.be6624db6a21

Dan Lamothe contributed to this story, which has been updated multiple times. 

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