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After nuke scare, Hawaii senator says feds should handle alerts

Earlier this month, a state agency's bogus missile warning terrified Hawaiians. Now Sen. Brian Schatz says he'll offer legislation to put the US government in charge.

US Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, wants to make sure local authorities never send a mistaken missile alert again.

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US Sen. Brian Schatz (left), Democrat of Hawaii, said he plans to introduce legislation to make federal agencies solely responsible for sending alerts about a missile attack. A Hawaiian state agency bungled a test of the system recently, terrifying island residents.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Schatz said Thursday that he's introducing legislation to make sure only federal officials are tasked with the responsibility of sending alerts in the event of a ballistic missile attack. Schatz, who announced plans for the legislation at a hearing examining the incident, said it made no sense for local authorities to alert the public of such an event.

"A missile attack is federal," Schatz said. "A missile attack is not a local responsibility. Confirmation and notification of something like a missile attack should reside with the agency that knows first and knows for sure, in other words the people who know should be the people who tell us."

The hearing was held in response to the Jan. 13 alert that was sent to millions of residents and visitors on Hawaii telling them a ballistic missile was heading toward them and they should take shelter. The message also said this was "not a drill." The message sent people into a panic, prompting them to contact loved ones and brace for the worst. 

The errant alert was caused by a local official from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, who mistakenly "pushed the wrong button" and sent the message out to broadcasters and to smartphones and other wireless devices. Within minutes officials tried to set the record straight on Twitter and Facebook, but it took more than a half hour for the state agency to send a correction telling the public the message was a mistake.

The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the technical standards behind the alerts, launched an investigation and said the mishap was the result of the state having insufficient safeguards and process controls in place.  At the hearing, Lisa M. Fowlkes, chief of public safety and homeland security for the FCC, said the mistake was unacceptable and has eroded the public trust. While she commended higher-ups in the state agency for their cooperation in the investigation, she also noted she was disappointed that the employee who sent the erroneous alert is refusing to cooperate with the FCC and has yet to be interviewed by investigators.

She added that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is still working with its vendor to integrate technical safeguards into its software and change protocols to ensure two people are required to sign off on a live alert. She acknowledged that better coordination between state and local authorities and the federal government is needed to ensure mistakes don't happen in the future.

Senators said too much is at stake for the incident to be repeated.

"False alerts not only create unnecessary panic, they undermine the integrity of the emergency alert system, leading to public distrust and confusion," Sen. John Thune, chairman of the committee, said in his opening statement. "What happened in Hawaii is inexcusable and must be addressed to ensure an incident like that never happens again."

Thursday's hearing is the first of two that will look at the emergency alert system and what went wrong in Hawaii. Another hearing will take place in Hawaii. The House of Representatives is also expected to hold a hearing. 

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