How Hawai'i Emergency Management Agency Works

Jan 24, 2018

Hawai'i Emergency Management System
Credit HI-EMA

How does Hawai’i’s Emergency Management System work?  That was the focus at the Legislature today. HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports.

HI-EMA operations branch chief, Vic Gustafson.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

The Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency -- HI EMA -- is a coordination agency between the National Weather Service, Pacific Tsunami Center and the U.S. Pacific Command.  HI-EMA passes on information but never initiates an alert.  Operations branch chief, Vic Gustafson.

“We are the only 24-7 EOC – emergency operating center – for the state.  Each of the counties, they do have county operating centers but they’re not manned 24-seven.”

Gustafson says in December 2016, as North Korea continued testing ballistic missiles, the state’s leadership decided to develop a nuclear attack alert plan and picked a scenario.

“So we picked, hey, what’s a likely target?  Something over Pearl Harbor, with the results of a 150 kilo ton weapon, being used like it was in Hiroshima – you know – a thousand feet above ground.  You’re looking at a blast area of 6-7 mile radius, with some fallout down wind.  You’re going to have a plume and what not.”

But, the probability of a North Korean attack was low, it’s targeting capabilities unproven, and the rationale of why North Korea would nuke and totally destroy a strategic location like Hawai’i was never conveyed.  Add to that, a smart phone alert system without a proven track record.

“A Wireless Emergency Alert System, there is no capability to test it.  That’s an FCC, it’s a federal regulation, that for the last 7-10 years  nobody across the United States can test that system.  We can definitely test the emergency alert system, where it’s the phone message or the crawler on the TV.  But the WEA to go to the phone, we cannot test that.  It’s only a real code that can be tested in the WEA.”

FCC deputy chief of operations for emergency management division, Justin Cain.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

Human error is also a factor at every level of the national emergency alert system, from federal to state to county.  Federal Communications Commission deputy chief of operations for the emergency management division, Justin Cain, says even with today’s technology there is no way to eliminate people.

“In all honesty, I am not aware of one, if there is.  Everything that I’ve seen so far, there is some kind of human intervention.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.