Hawaii worker who sent missile alert thought threat was real

Hawaii worker who sent missile alert fired; thought threat was real
Published: Jan. 30, 2018 at 11:48 AM HST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2018 at 4:12 AM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a stunning revelation Tuesday, state investigators said the emergency management employee who sent out the false missile alert to Hawaii phones — triggering 38 minutes of panic until a correction could be sent — believed the threat of an incoming missile was real and had a history of confusing drills with real-world events.

The news, another embarrassing chapter in a story that's shaken the public's trust in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, came on the same day that officials announced the state worker who sent the alert has been fired and emergency management Administrator Vern Miyagi has resigned.

Meanwhile, in a news conference Tuesday in Diamond Head, Gov. David Ige said he wasn't informed that the worker who sent the false missile alert did so intentionally until Monday, when state investigators completed a probe into the fiasco.

"I was not aware until the general issued the report," Ige said. "I certainly wasn't aware of any of this specific information."

In the minutes and days following the false missile alert, the governor and other state officials characterized the message about an inbound ballistic missile that went to hundreds of thousands of phones as a mistake; the "button pusher" didn't mean to send out the alert, the governor has said, and he only realized his mistake when it appeared on his own phone.

The state report did confirm that the alert was sent out during a test of the state's procedures in the event of an inbound ballistic missile. Emergency management officials have been practicing routine missile defense drills for several months, as part of a campaign to better prepare Hawaii for the threat of a nuclear attack.

In its report, released Tuesday, the state said the drill on Jan. 13 started as previous ones had: A recorded Pacific Command message was played over loudspeakers at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency that began "exercise, exercise, exercise," then warned of an incoming ballistic missile and said, "This is not a drill."

The drill then ended with "exercise, exercise, exercise."

In its own report, the FCC said the employee who sent out the false alert heard "This is not a drill," but didn't hear "exercise."

And FCC officials said that the message was problematic: "The midnight shift supervisor initiated the drill by playing a recording that deviated from the script of the agency's established drill procedure and included the phrase 'This is not a drill,'" the FCC said, in its report.

But the state report says five other employees on at the time knew that the drill wasn't real, and noted that HI-EMA employees had conducted the exercise 26 times before. (The FCC said the number of drills the state had conducted heightened the potential for errors.)

[Read the state's full report on the false missile alert probe here.]

The state's report also reveals:

  • Other employees realized a real alert had been sent when they got it on their phones.
  • About five minutes after the alert was sent, an employee told the worker who sent the missile message to cancel it so that it would no longer transmit to phones that were off or out of range. But the worker who triggered the alert "just sat there and didn't respond."
  • The state worker who sent the alert has at least twice before believed drills to be real-world events.
  • Those two incidents included a "fire incident and a tsunami incident," officials said.
  • Further, the state worker had been a concern to "state warning point" employees for more than a decade and his performance "has been counseled and documented."

The employee who sent the alert, said retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who was charged with conducting the state's internal investigation, had a history of "confusing drills and real-world drills."

"The employee has been here for over 10 years. And throughout the 10 years, there have been indications, there have been reports that he has performance issues. And throughout the 10 years, he has confused drills at least two times. A real-world drill and a practice drill. It had been noted and they made on spot corrections."

But the employee's attorney, Michael Green, said the state is looking for a "scapegoat" in his client.

"This was awful. It was all over the world and I like the governor, but it took him 38 minutes to come out and then give the wrong version of what happened," he said. "So now they want to play him and other people. Somebody's gotta take the jerk for this. He never pushed the wrong button. He pushed the button he was supposed to push. He did what he was trained to do."

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the state said that one other employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has resigned — the department's executive officer Toby Clairmont — and one employee (a supervisor in charge of protocols) will be suspended.

In a statement, Miyagi said leading the emergency management agency has been "one of the finest, most rewarding challenges in my life."

TIMELINE: State's breakdown of minutes before and after false missile alert went out
FACT CHECK: Here's everything we know about the false missile alert

"Recent events have cast a bright light on our emergency preparedness, and caused many of you to consider whether you are ready for the emergencies we will surely face," he said. "Be safe and know that whatever happens, good and courageous people will be there to help."

The governor opened the state's news conference saying that he hopes the probe would help to begin to restore confidence in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

"This effort is the beginning of our effort to restore the public trust in HI-EMA," Ige said. "We need to remember that there are many instances that the state warning point has functioned. We continue to do our work to make the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency better prepared."

But the state's own report paints a department struggling to tackle its duties and mired in confusion.

"I find a preponderance of evidence exists that insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors contributed to the real-world ballistic missile alert," the state report concluded.

The FCC's preliminary report into the alert also pointed a series of human errors and systemic issues at the agency.

And FCC investigators publicly bristled after the state worker who sent the alert refused to speak to them — or state investigators. Instead, the worker provided a written statement.

In its investigation, the FCC concluded the drill was run without sufficient supervision due to a miscommunication between the midnight shift supervisor and day shift supervisor. Moreover, the FCC said there were no proper procedures to prevent a single person from mistakenly sending a missile alert.

Not only did the agency not have a requirement in place for an employee to double check with someone else before an alert is sent, but it also didn't come up with steps for issuing a possible false alert.

Another "troubling" finding was that the software used to send out the alert did not clearly differentiate between the testing environment and live alert production environment.

The FCC is still investigating and will issue a final report with its recommendations.

The missile alert has been a major black eye for the Ige administration, which has faced big questions over its handling of the false alarm — and the length of time it took to put out a correction. The alert spurred national and international headlines, and images of frantic visitors and residents running for their lives and climbing into manholes have been transmitted on every major cable news channel.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has said that Hawaii rushed testing of the missile alert system and reiterated Tuesday his contention that such national security threats should actually be handled by the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, meanwhile, is challenging Ige in the upcoming race for governor and has argued the episode underscores Ige's leadership failures. In endorsing Hanabusa last week, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard echoed those words, saying that, "now more than ever ... Hawaii needs a strong, dynamic leader at the helm of our state."

At the news conference Tuesday, Ige confirmed that he is still running for re-election.

And he has brushed off suggestions that the missile alert could be a make or break moment in voters' minds.

"This campaign is going to be about leadership and about getting things done and I look forward to being able to tell all the people of Hawaii about both of those issues," Ige said last week.


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