Mayor Kim Responds to State Report on Emergency Alert System

February 27, 2018, 12:43 PM HST (Updated February 27, 2018, 12:54 PM)
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Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim. PC: Chris Yoakum.

By Christopher Yoakum

Mayor Harry Kim shared his review of a state report on the emergency alert system with Big Island Now to address a statewide false ballistic missile alert sent to Hawai‘i residents on Jan. 13, 2018.

The All Hazards Preparedness Improvement Action Plan and Report led by Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara was issued to review the current system and provide recommendations for improvement.

Mayor Kim emphasized that a key priority for bettering the system was to provide proper training for emergency management system personnel and to hire qualified leaders with experience.

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Mayor Kim provided input for the report, drawing from 24 years of experience as Hawai‘i County’s Civil Defense director. He said his comments remained the same in the report as they were when the missile alert strategy was first unveiled last year.

“I told them that we’re not ready,” said Mayor Kim. “The whole system needs to be reviewed.”

Mayor Kim said he expressed his concerns to HI-EMA officials in October that the system should be suspended and they agreed with him, but continued to implement it.

A state investigation revealed the erroneous message was a result of human error during a shift-change. The HI-EMA employee who sent the alert said he thought the threat was real, though the exercise was a drill.

Mayor Kim said the employee’s mistake should not be the focus of the problem, but that there was a greater issue at play.

“Many people are focusing on what went wrong that day,” he said. “That small thing is not the issue. If there was an adequate amount of staff training, that would have never happened.”

According to the state report, HI-EMA had not developed a comprehensive plan to address a ballistic missile threat prior to testing the alert system. Lapses were also identified in all levels of HI-EMA leadership, who failed to address personnel issues that resulted in poor performance that contributed to the erroneous alert on Jan. 13.

The report recommended several near-term actions to address failures and improve the system including:

  • A comprehensive review and assessment of organizational roles and performance
    should begin immediately
  • Improvements in technological capabilities needed
  • Enforce current statutes and executive orders dealing with emergency management
  • Develop and deliver training and education programs for the public, government leaders, and EM employees

The report also stated that the events and panic observed following the Jan. 13 incident showed that an outreach campaign conducted statewide as part of the missile preparedness strategy did not succeed.

The false alert panicked and confused Hawai‘i residents statewide, many of whom did not know what to do in response to the perceived threat. The missile alert system was implemented in April 2017 in response to escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Hawai‘i is a potential target for the rogue nuclear state, which has recently demonstrated improved targeting capabilities in the Pacific region.

The report was ordered by Gov. Ige on Jan. 15 and involved more than 700 hours of interviews and surveys to identify vulnerabilities in the system and form recommendations for improvement. It noted that HI-EMA is currently prepared to respond to natural and man-made disasters, with the exception of nuclear ballistic missile attacks.

Despite his criticisms, Mayor Kim stressed that he did not believe the system was a total failure.

“Don’t misinterpret me to think that the system is poor,” he said. “Without a doubt in my mind, we have the best in the 50 states. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, it just needs to be greased.”

Mayor Kim attributed the state’s superior alert system to Hawai‘i’s isolated geography, and wartime history including the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War Era.

Mayor Kim emphasized the importance of regaining public trust, and that he has confidence in Gov. Ige to take proper action to improve the system.

“We must reestablish trust. We let people suffer an extreme element of fear, and we have to work to get it back. If I don’t have your trust in whatever I’m trying to convey, what good is the system? I believe our governor is of total sincerity and he wants to do this.”

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