January 17, 2018

Hirono: I Am Calling for a Thorough, Transparent Investigation into False Emergency Threat Alert

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) took to the Senate floor today to provide an update on Saturday’s false emergency threat alert, and outlined steps she will take to get to the bottom of what occurred to make sure the mistake never happens again.

 

From Senator Hirono’s remarks:

 

“This incident has undermined the public’s faith in our state government’s ability to provide timely and accurate information about a potential crisis. At a time when we face heightened tensions around the world, and particularly with regard to North Korea, it is crucial the people of Hawaii can have confidence in the government to provide accurate information.

 

“It’s why I am calling for a thorough, transparent investigation into what occurred. We need a full accounting of the human and system failures that occurred. And we need to identify and put in place specific steps to make sure something like this never happens again.”

Senator Hirono’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

 

Mr. President,

 

When the sun rose last Saturday in Hawaii, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. People on Kauai were getting ready to participate in the local march to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Families were sitting around the table eating breakfast. Others were sleeping in after a long week of work.

 

At 8:07 am, everything changed. Mobile phones throughout Hawaii received an emergency alert in all capital letters informing them of a ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii, and that it was not a drill. The terror and panic was real, and peoples’ reactions reflected that.

 

Parents passed their children through manhole covers into the sewers seeking safety. Separated family members took to the highways, driving as fast as 100 miles per hour to get home. Some had to decide whether to rush to be with their spouse or their children. Thirty eight minutes later, an emergency alert came through, saying there was no missile threat. False alarm. The relief was palpable.

 

This relief gave way to real, visceral anger. Anger that there was a false alarm. Anger that it took 38 minutes to alert the public. Anger that we faced a missile threat at all.

 

This incident has undermined the public’s faith in our state government’s ability to provide timely and accurate information about a potential crisis. At a time when we face heightened tensions around the world, and particularly with regard to North Korea, it is crucial the people of Hawaii can have confidence in the government to provide accurate information.

 

It’s why I am calling for a thorough, transparent investigation into what occurred. We need a full accounting of the human and system failures that occurred. And we need to identify and put in place specific steps to make sure something like this never happens again.

 

What we do know is that the incident was a result of human error. An operator mistakenly triggered the alert. Although the error was discovered quickly, we need to better understand the circumstances that led up to the incident. We need to understand how the operator was trained.

We need to identify and understand any other potential issues that resulted in this specific human error.

 

The state has appointed an investigator to get to the bottom of this, and the State Legislature is scheduled to be briefed on preliminary findings on Friday.

 

Once the circumstances that precipitated this error are identified, we need to correct them as quickly as possible.

 

Concurrently, we need to understand the system failures that resulted both in the false alert and in the 38 minute delay before the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) issued a correction. Why did HI-EMA officials believe they needed approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue a correction? The Secretary of Homeland Security told me at a hearing yesterday that no such permission was necessary, pointing to a need for clarity regarding agency responsibilities. 

 

State governments oversee and operate local emergency management alert systems. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Homeland Security – through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – have a role to play to make sure these systems are operating properly.

 

During yesterday’s hearing in the Judiciary Committee, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen committed to working with me to strengthen federal-state cooperation on emergency alerts, assess potential failures, and improve overall readiness in Hawaii and across our country.

 

The FCC is also conducting an investigation into what happened. The entire nation will benefit if these key federal agencies work with states to close gaps in training and communication, institute best practices, and ensure states and local governments have the appropriate resources to prevent this from happening again.

 

This false alert also clarified the importance of strong coordination between state government and our military. Over the weekend, I spoke with Admiral Harris of Pacific Command about ways to strengthen this coordination, particularly during a period of heightened tensions with North Korea.

 

The fact that people in Hawaii immediately assumed the missile originated in North Korea speaks to the broad concern about the potential for conflict and the threat North Korea poses to our state and the rest of the country.

 

We need to support and strengthen diplomatic efforts regarding North Korea because at a time of heightened tension between and the United States and North Korea, the potential for miscalculations increase. 

 

The President, rather than engaging in a tit for tat with Kim Jong-un, should be supporting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to engage in meaningful diplomacy and marshal the support of our allies to diffuse tensions with North Korea. 

 

I spoke earlier today with Secretary of Defense James Mattis to emphasize the urgency of resolving this situation peacefully, knowing that he had just returned from a multinational meeting with a number of key allies, including Japan and South Korea, focusing on North Korean provocations.

 

Secretary Mattis provided a military perspective at this meeting and reiterated to me the importance of strong diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions with North Korea. I call on the president to support these kinds of initiatives and give Secretary Tillerson the resources he needs.

 

I yield the floor.

 

 

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