Maui News

Hawai‘i False Missile Alert Focus of Two Bills in Congress

February 7, 2018, 8:32 AM HST
* Updated February 7, 8:36 AM
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Bills aimed at addressing Hawaiʻi’s false missile alert were introduced in both chambers of Congress this week.

Background image at HI-EMA headquarters. File image 2018. PC: Brian Schatz courtesy. PC: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. File image April 2017.

ALERT Act

US Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaiʻi joined colleagues in introducing bipartisan legislation to improve the nation’s emergency alert system.  Sen. Schatz was joined by US Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in introducing the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats or ALERT Act.

The legislation comes after the Jan. 13, 2018 false missile alert in Hawaiʻi.

Under the bill, the federal government would be given the sole responsibility of issuing alerts to the public for a missile threat, and would prohibit  state and local governments from doing so.

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Schatz called the bill a “common sense step” to ensure accurate information is disseminated, and said the people who know first should be the ones to tell the rest of us.

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Senator Schatz, the ranking member on the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet said:

“States are laboratories of democracy. They should not be the laboratories of missile alerts.  The people who know first should be the people who tell the rest of us. This legislation makes clear that the authority to send missile alerts rests with the federal government.”

He said the system that state and local governments use “rests upon a patchwork of technologies and procedures that do not follow consistently across the government agencies that issue these alerts.” He said the false alert highlighted weaknesses in the state’s emergency alert system, which he said had a “poorly designed user interface” and did not have “sufficient verification system or computer redundancies” to act as a safeguard from mistakes.

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The ALERT Act is also cosponsored by US Senator Mazie K. Hirono.

Civil Defense Accountability Act

In the House, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) introduced the Civil Defense Accountability Act of 2018.

The house bill seeks to address vulnerabilities in the system, ensures transparent investigations into the incident, establishes best practices and seeks to strengthen preparedness nationwide.

The bill would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense and FCC to publicly disclose incident and recommendation reports about the January 13th incident.

In addition, the House bill would instruct the Department of Health and Human Services to publicly detail the ability of HHS and health care providers to respond to a biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear weapons attack.

Reps. Don Young (AK) and Colleen Hanabusa (HI-01) of Hawaiʻi are original cosponsors of the bipartisan legislation.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said:

“The false ballistic missile alert sent out across Hawai‘i corroded public trust and revealed gaps in preparedness measures at every level of government. Given the threats we face and the vulnerabilities that have been exposed, there are serious changes that need to take place at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure this kind of colossal failure never happens again. Along with providing Hawaii’s people with timely answers into what went wrong and why, we also need to investigate the gaps that exist at home and across the country that could trigger or perpetuate future emergencies. Our legislation will ensure the lessons learned from Hawaiʻi’s false alert are used to identify and fix preparedness gaps nationwide.”

Congresswoman Hanabusa said:

“This legislation is an important part of rebuilding the public’s trust in government. One of our basic responsibilities is to provide public safety, especially in a moment of crisis. The morning of January 13th revealed an unfortunate array of issues within the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency, the protocols and policies that govern the issuance of a ballistic missile alert and the community’s preparation and response. In the weeks since the false alarm, we have heard confusing, often conflicting accounts from state officials about what went wrong and who is responsible. The public deserves a transparent, accurate accounting, like the one recently completed by the Federal Communications Commission , so we can make corrections and move forward. This incident also highlighted the need to review HI-EMA’s Attack Warning Signal system and our community response plan in the event of a biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear attack. Mahalo to Congresswoman Gabbard and Congressman Young for their bipartisan efforts to help restore the community’s faith in government and ensure we are better prepared.”

Background: The Civil Defense Accountability Act of 2018 would do the following according to information released by Rep. Gabbard:

  • Assess Current Reporting Procedures: Within 90 days, the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of Federal Communications Commission, is required to submit a report to Congress regarding the current notification protocols for ballistic missile threats. This report will assess the notification protocols required under Federal Law or regulations of federal and state entities and the communications between these entities, after a ballistic missile threat is identified, during a ballistic missile threat, and regarding ballistic missile impact warnings.
  • Establish Best Practices: Within 180 days of enactment, the Secretary of Homeland Security, acting through FEMA, is required to conduct a study to identify the best practices regarding civil defense emergencies. This study will identify plans for local, state, and federal communications before, during, and after a civil defense emergency. In addition, the study will include plans for State communication with residents and local and State security and contingency plans. The initial study shall include no fewer than 13 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, California, Washington, and five states bordering an ocean including the Gulf of Mexico. Within 180 days of enactment, the Secretary of State will also submit a report to Congress regarding the 13 state study including deficiency trends, best practices, and plans to improve public outreach regarding civil defense emergencies. The unclassified portions of this report will be disseminated to states within 270 days.
  • Evaluate Federal Response: Within 60 days of enactment, the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of FEMA, and the Director of the FCC will provide to Congress and publish an online report detailing their agencies’ actions during the January 13 ballistic missile false alarm in Hawaii. The report will also detail corrective actions and recommendations to prevent future false alarms.
  • Strengthen Public Health Preparedness: Within 180 days, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, through the Office of the Assistant Secretary of for Preparedness and Response, will submit a report to Congress and publish an online report regarding the ability of HHS and health care providers to respond to biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear weapons attacks on the U.S. The Secretary is also required to submit recommendations to Congress and develop a public outreach program in coordination with local and State entities using these recommendations. The Secretary of Health and Human Services will also take into consideration the recommendations in the report when issuing grants under the Public Health Emergency Preparedness cooperative agreement and the Hospital Preparedness program.
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