Schatz pushes for federal control of missile threat alert systems

KAILUA-KONA — Gov. David Ige and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency have assured the public that its newly implemented emergency protocols should guard against a repeat of the false missile alert that sent waves of terror and confusion rippling out across the islands in January.

New federal legislation introduced Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz removing missile alerts from the purview of all state and local governments, however, would guarantee it — leaving the responsibility to disseminate such information, as well as the potential for any mistakes, solely in the hands of the federal government.

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“The point here is there should be no intermediary between the people who make a determination about a missile launch and notifying the public,” Schatz said. “The people who know for sure should be the people who tell us for sure.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) joined Schatz (D-Hawaii) as co-sponsors of the bipartisan Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats Act, or the ALERT Act.

The catalyst for the legislation was the Jan. 13 false missile alert that went uncorrected on the alert system for 38 minutes. A Federal Communications Commission investigation into the matter noted several instances of both human error and inadequate safeguards within HI-EMA as the reason for the initial error as well as the protracted response time.

Aside from granting the federal government sole authority to render missile alerts, the ALERT Act would also direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a notification system between itself and various state authorities.

The ALERT Act would also require the relevant subcommittee of the National Advisory Council to develop best practices for state and local governments to “maintain the integrity” of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which Schatz said is the backbone for all emergency alerts systems nationwide.

With more than 3,000 counties in 50 states plus five territories, all with their own emergency management agencies, Schatz said logic supports a uniform process for something as serious as warnings about intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

Such state and local agencies would retain under their purview notification systems and practices for all other emergency situations.

“That works fine for weather events, but it makes no sense for war,” Schatz said. “If there’s anything that’s federal in nature, it’s an ICBM coming to the United States. … Asking local governments to figure out whether a missile is coming is the definition of ‘not their kuleana.’”

Schatz said he’s gotten little push back from either side of the aisle thus far, adding he expects to pick up more bipartisan support as the ALERT Act moves through the lawmaking process.

There has been equally little resistance from Hawaii, he said.

Ige, who drew significant heat for the false missile alert just as he was ramping up his re-election campaign, did not voice opposition to Schatz’s proposal during an interview with West Hawaii Today in late January.

“Today, it’s the state’s responsibility, and we provide that service 24/7/365,” Ige said. “(If there is) legislation or other activity that transfers that responsibility, then we’ll work with whoever is tasked with that.”

Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim, longtime director of the island’s Civil Defense Agency, said the ALERT Act won’t change much, even if the federal government reactivates its warning system because the responsibility in a nuclear situation has always rested at the federal level.

It’s always been United States Pacific Command that is responsible for notifying the state of such a threat, Kim said, adding he believes state dissemination systems and direction will remain necessary under any missile alert paradigm.

“The only thing that’s changed, to tell you the truth, is if you look at the wording (in the bill), it says in the entirety of responsibility relies on the federal government. That’s not possible,” Kim said. “The federal government doesn’t have the capability to coordinate everybody within the state of Hawaii or any other state.”

Schatz said Hawaii residents wouldn’t be required to sign up for any new notification systems if the ALERT Act becomes law, adding that he doesn’t expect any reconfiguration would lead to HI-EMA layoffs or increased costs at the state or federal levels.

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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday, along with co-sponsors Reps. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) and Don Young (R-Alaska) entitled the Civil Defense Accountability Act of 2018.

According to a release, the act would address Civil Defense alert vulnerabilities, bolster communication plans on state and federal levels, look at nationwide preparedness for missile threats and related attacks and recommend ways to strengthen that preparedness, and “ensure transparent investigations” into Hawaii’s false missile alert via online public disclosure requirements.