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Another view: False alert reveals frightening gaps

Unbelievable. Recently, Hawaii residents and visitors awoke to a postcard-perfect day, and to this emergency text alert: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It was a false alarm, thankfully, but not totally outside the realm of possibility given heightened warbaiting between North Korea and the U.S. But the revelation of how this happened was mind-boggling: “human error” involving a lone staffer at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency hitting the wrong computer button, not once, but twice in confirmation; no dual-staffer safeguard; and no quick path to retract a false alert.

With tensions precariousness, Hawaii’s best needs to be on watch and on alert. This incident belied that, and HI-EMA has become its own worst enemy – having in 38 minutes, between alarm and retraction, eroded its credibility with the public as a trustworthy source in the event of disaster or attack. Three minutes after the 8:07 a.m. issuance, it was confirmed to be a drill gone wrong, and Oahu police and others started spreading that word; the counties did a laudable job in maintaining professionalism. Due to protocol gaps, however, HI-EMA’s official “false alarm” alert didn’t come until 8:45 a.m., and even that dissemination was spotty.

This botched episode deserves the stern scrutiny of the Federal Communications Commission, which has opened a “full investigation” into Hawaii’s emergency notification system. State legislators also are holding a Friday hearing into the situational.

This is not a mere oops that deserves shielding, let alone from HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi, the bungler’s boss, who made this weak attempt to downplay when asked about consequences: “You gotta know this guy feels bad, right?”

Lame. Unacceptable. Tell that to the man hustling his loved ones down a manhole in hopes of protection from a “this is not a drill” missile. To the many crying, terrified kids at activities who were corralled to safety, some separated from parents. To the many tourists here, hunkered and tweeting final farewells to loved ones back home, believing they could die.

Simply but profoundly, HI-EMA holds responsibility for widespread life or death. There are no second guesses here, there are no second chances.

This is not about thirst for blame; it is about the imperative for accountability and trust. Miyagi in a Saturday news conference did apologize and take responsibility, but his attempt to deflect staff culpability as a “personnel” matter was laughable if it all wasn’t so serious; Miyagi and “this guy” on the button have lost public confidence to remain on the public payroll.

All day Saturday, this false missile alarm topped news cycles worldwide – and it was telling, and necessary, that Hawaii’s tourism authority chief was front and center in news conferences reassuring global partners and potential visitors that Hawaii remains safe, clean and “open for business.”

In addition to tourism impacts, this episode intensifies discussion on a plethora of issues: The need for better coordination and communications between first responders on the state, city and federal levels; better integration of social media into alerts; the value of missile-attack alerts; buildup of military missile defenses for Hawaii; political fallout for Gov. David Ige; more diplomacy with North Korea.

The confusion also begs assessment of the responses, such as dropped calls by the overwhelmed 911 system; and better training on protocols by bus drivers, hotels and schools.

But, Saturday’s surreal, needless chaos exposed too many incompetencies. Some galling procedural gaps have already been fixed, such as double-teaming at button-pushing drills and adding a template to HI-EMA protocols to quickly retract false alarms, which of course, is avowed to never happen again. That very vow, though, will be met with skepticism unless crucial “personnel” fixes are made to restore trust – among Hawaii’s citizens and now, an attentive global audience – that things will not be lax business as usual.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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