News Report

#MissileAlert could mean federal control over states’ alert systems

But does the move miss the point when it comes to keeping Hawai‘i free from the threat of nuclear attack?

in Militarism

United States Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) have announced the introduction of legislation that would give the federal government the sole responsibility of alerting the public of a missile threat, prohibiting state and local governments from doing so.

In the wake of the false emergency alert that went out across Hawai‘i on January 13, when—for 38 minutes—residents and visitors feared for their lives, the federal government could create the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act, which would give it the authority to take control over the systems states have in place to alert citizens to an incoming missile attack.

“States are laboratories of democracy. They should not be the laboratories of missile alerts,” said Senator Schatz. “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.”

State and local governments are largely responsible for alerting the public to threats from natural disasters and severe weather. But, according to the senators, the systems states use rest “upon a patchwork of technologies and procedures that do not follow consistently across the government agencies that issue these alerts.”

The false alarm in Hawai‘i highlighted some of the weaknesses in this state’s emergency alert system, which news agencies reported as having a poorly designed user interface lacking in sufficient verification systems or computer redundancies to act as safeguards from mistakes. The incident made clear that there is certainly a need for an improved and secure system and called into question the state’s responsibility to issue a missile alert. But should the federal government seize control of the missile alert systems currently manned by state agencies? What would integration look like with other state-run disaster alerts such as tsunami warnings or flash flood and high surf advisories?

“Sen. Schatz’s plan for better coordination between the state and federal government over control of a missile warning system seems horribly misdirected,” said Arnie Saiki, Research Director for the Statehood Hawai‘i project. Saiki also coordinated the Moana Nui conferences, a partnership between the International Forum on Globalization and Pua Mohala I Ka Po in 2011 and 2013. “Local authority needs to have control of the warning system. In the event of an all-out missile attack against the U.S., the federal government is going to have its hands full trying to coordinate the various cities and municipalities that would be impacted. The state will be far better prepared to direct people and prepare for contingencies.”

The Independent reached out to Governor Ige’s office and the office of Representative Matt LoPresti, who took over as chair of the House Committee on Veterans, Military, & International Affairs, & Culture and the Arts after Reps. Ken Ito and James Tokioka lost their leadership positions on the committee after a failed attempt to overthrow House Speaker Scott Saiki. Neither party responded to requests for comments by publication deadline.

“This is a common-sense step to ensure that accurate national security information is used to assess whether or not an emergency alert about a missile threat should be deployed,” said Senator Harris. “It will also ensure that state and local governments continue to play a critical role in emergency response efforts, and provide the federal government with the ability to make missile alerts a more effective public safety tool.” 

The legislation would “strengthen the way states and local governments use the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) platform emergency management professionals across the country use to issue warnings,” according to a Schatz Office press release announcing the bill. More specifically, the ALERT Act would:

· Restrict the authority to alert the public of a missile threat to the federal government. It would also require FEMA to establish a process to promptly notify state authorities when a missile alert is issued so they can activate their own protective action plans to ensure public safety;

· Require the IPAWS subcommittee of the FEMA National Advisory Council to make recommendations on the best practices that state and local governments should follow to maintain the integrity of IPAWS. At a minimum, the subcommittee would make recommendations regarding the incident management tools used to originate alerts, and the procedures for testing and sending notifications to the public to avoid false alarms;

· Require FEMA to establish minimum requirements for state and local governments to participate in IPAWS within 120 days of receiving the subcommittee’s recommendations, the idea being that states would have reasonable time to implement any new requirements FEMA imposes;

· Require FEMA to establish a process to test the incident management and warning tool that a state or local government adopts to originate and send alerts to the public in the FEMA IPAWS Lab and to certify it meets any technical requirements that FEMA adopts; and

· Require FEMA to review its Emergency Operations, National Watch and Regional Watch Centers to assess their ability to track state and local alerts issued under IPAWS and determine which ones they should be notified about when states send them out.

“Our national integrated public alert system is not something we can afford to get wrong,” said Senator Gardner. “What happened in Hawai‘i can never happen again—people terrified by the false alert of a system that must have absolute confidence. We need to make sure we have safe and reliable protocols in place that quickly alert Americans about serious threats, whether those threats be fast-moving wildfires or actual ballistic missile launches from rogue states like North Korea. Since they have full control over drafting and issuing alerts, state and local governments need to meet certain standards to participate in our national alert system and the federal government must be heavily involved in any alerts regarding national security crises. We need to continue to do everything in our power to prevent the worst from happening and that includes being prepared for the worst.”

“Putting the best answer forward, the main concern has to be demilitarizing the region,” Saiki commented. “The Union of Concerned Scientists have all drawn the same conclusion: If Pearl Harbor was ground zero, an early warning system would really be much more of a courtesy call for the residents of Honolulu, effectively preparing you to be vaporized. An independent Hawai‘i would never have to fear a missile attack. There is really no better way to provide security to Hawaii than to demilitarize.”

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