Hawaii worker who sent false alert had problems but kept job

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s emergency management leader has resigned and a state employee who sent an alert falsely warning of an incoming ballistic missile has been fired, officials said Tuesday, weeks after the mistake caused widespread panic.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi stepped down Tuesday, state Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Joe Logan said. A second agency worker quit before disciplinary action was taken and another was being suspended without pay, Logan said in announcing results of an internal investigation.

The fallout came the same day the Federal Communications Commission revealed that the worker who pushed out the alert thought an actual attack was imminent. It was the first indication the Jan. 13 alert was purposely sent, adding another level of confusion to the misstep that left residents and tourists believing their lives were about to end.

The state emergency agency worker believed the attack was real because of a mistake in how the drill was initiated during a shift change, the FCC said in a report. The worker said he didn’t hear the word “exercise” repeated six times even though others clearly heard it.

There was no requirement to double-check with a colleague or get a supervisor’s approval before sending the blast to cellphones, TV and radio stations statewide, the agency said.

“There were no procedures in place to prevent a single person from mistakenly sending a missile alert” in Hawaii, said James Wiley, a cybersecurity and communications reliability staffer at the FCC.

The worker, who was fired Friday and whose name has not been revealed, has confused real-life events and drills in the past, according to the state’s report on its internal investigation. Retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who wrote the report, said the employee mistakenly believed drills for tsunami and fire warnings were actual events.

His poor performance had been documented for years, and colleagues say they were not comfortable working with him in any role. His supervisors counselled him but kept him in his job. He had worked for the agency for over 10 years in a position that had to be renewed annually.

Earlier this month, the employee heard a recorded message that began by saying “exercise, exercise, exercise” — the script for a drill, the FCC said. Then the recording used language that is typically used for a real threat, not a drill: “This is not a drill.” The recording ended by saying “exercise, exercise, exercise.”

Once the employee sent the false alert, he was directed to send a cancel message but instead “just sat there and didn’t respond,” the state report said. Later, another employee took over the computer and sent the correction because the worker “seemed confused.”

Compounding the issues with the alert was that the agency lacked any preparation in how to correct the false warning. The FCC, which regulates the nation’s airwaves and sets standards for such emergency alerts, criticized the state’s delay in correcting it.

In addition, software at Hawaii’s emergency agency used the same prompts for both test and actual alerts, and it generally used prepared text that made it easy for a staffer to click through the alerting process without focusing enough on the text of the warning that would be sent.

The FCC said the state Emergency Management Agency has already taken steps to try to avoid a repeat of the false alert, requiring more supervision of drills and alert and test-alert transmissions. It has created a correction template for false alerts and has stopped ballistic missile defence drills until its own investigation is done.

Gov. David Ige has asked the Hawaii National Guard’s deputy commander to prepare another report on what needs to be changed in the emergency management system overall. The first version of that report is due in two weeks, with a final version due in six weeks.

Ige was asked why Hawaii didn’t reveal details earlier about the worker who sent the alert, and he said it would have been irresponsible to release statements before the investigation was complete.

___

Associated Press Technology Writer Tali Arbel contributed to this report from New York.

Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press

 

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