(HONOLULU) -- A little over two weeks after a false ballistic missile alert fronted cell phone screens across Hawaii and sent the state into panic, a preliminary federal report found that the employee who sent the alert “claimed to believe” it was a real emergency, not a drill.
The report makes it clear that “many things went wrong in Hawaii,” Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement. So far, the investigation has found that Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency, HI-EMA, didn’t have “reasonable safeguards in place to prevent human error from resulting in the transmission of a false alert," and if a false alert did go out, “didn’t have a plan for what to do,” Pai said.
The FCC has also reported that the employee who mistakenly sent out the mobile alert is refusing to cooperate in its investigation. At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Lisa Fowlkes, the head of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the FCC, said the federal agency is pleased with the cooperation from leadership in Hawaii, but disappointed in the refusal from the key employee.
The new report does not answer the burning question that both residents of Hawaii and people across the country are wondering: Why wasn't the alert corrected in a wireless alert, the way it was initially transmitted, for almost 40 minutes?
A press conference held later Tuesday by Gov. David Ige, D-HI, and other Hawaii officials will provide more answers, an official with the Hawaii Department of Defense said, including the release of the investigation and personnel actions from the HI-EMA internal investigation, which is now complete.
While questions remain, the FCC report does detail the timeline of those chaotic 38 minutes, described as follows.
At 8:05 a.m. on Jan.13, HI-EMA began a “no-notice ballistic missile defense drill” during a shift change from overnight to dayside officers.
The midnight superviser played the drill recording over the phone. “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” was part of the recording -- but the recording also contradicted that language with the language “this is not a drill.”
The recording “[did] not follow the script contained in HI-EMA’s standard operating procedure for this drill,” the report states.
Then, within two minutes according to the report, a dayside officer on the receiving end of the drill selected a template for a live alert and sent it out -- even approving a prompt of “Are you sure that you want to send this Alert?”
According to the report, other officers knew and understood that it was a drill, but the officer who sent the alert “claimed to believe, in a written statement provided to HI-EMA, that this was a real emergency, not a drill.”
The governor of Hawaii was alerted within five minutes, followed by the U.S. Pacific Command and then the Honolulu Police Department, the report states. But it wasn’t until 8:45 a.m., 38 minutes after the first alert, that HI-EMA issued a correction on the wireless emergency alert system in the same way it dispatched it at the beginning of the false threat.
“In general terms, there was a lot of public outreach happening at that time through various means,” said Lt. Col. Charles Anthony of the Hawaii Department of Defense, which includes HI-EMA.
The outreach included social media and broadcast media, depending how well-staffed the newsrooms were on that Saturday morning, Anthony said.
All of the major broadcast stations were reached by 8:22 a.m., Anthony said -- 23 minutes before the cell phone alerts rescinding the threat went out.
The FCC investigation is still ongoing.
HI-EMA “has taken steps designed to ensure that an incident such as this never happens again,” the report states in its preliminary findings. A final report will include recommendations, followed by a partnership with FEMA to work on the implementation of “best practices.”
“Federal, state, and local officials must work together to prevent such a false alert from happening again,” the report states.
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