The recent Emergency Warning System incident (incoming ballistic missile) in Hawaii has received extensive news coverage and produced much bad publicity for that state…which actually had been making some effort towards establishing a viable public warning system. Given that Hawaii faces not just the relatively unlikely threat of ballistic missile attack but much more common disasters such as tsunamis, the state should actually receive commendation for its efforts. Beyond that the incident should serve as a wakeup call for the nation as a whole – and should have stimulated a much broader dialog about government response to worst case national emergencies, the ones that occur with no warning at all, unlike the hurricanes which were so devastating in 2017.
One of the things that emerged from my research into the response to such emergencies, and which I wrote about in Surprise Attack, is the simple fact that casualties and damage can be reduced not only by an effective, integrated command and control system – but by subjecting that system to a continual and ongoing exercise and practice to a variety of threats. The United States learned just how tragic a failure to identify and consistently practice against contemporary threats can be in 2001.
Ironically, on September 11 of that year, a variety of military exercises were in progress – as they had routinely been in previous years. I cover points of failure for 9/11 in Surprise Attack and one of the first was that even though terrorist airliner attacks had been identified as a threat, and actually exercised against on several occasions, those exercises had been limited to simply intercepting the aircraft – with the assumption that the hijacked aircraft would leave on their tracking transponders and that they could be voluntarily diverted. The previous exercises ended at the intercept, further measures were not explored or addressed. Worse yet, in 2001 the entire series of excise scenarios actually being practiced were “historical”, cold war related and focused on Russian strategic nuclear attacks.
In point of fact, during the actual of 9/11 virtually every agency (other than the Air Force’s regional air defense centers/specifically NEADS and its air defense personnel including interceptor pilots) totally failed in the execution of its command and control responsibilities. In response, and over time, the lessons learned from those failures resulted in a dramatically improved level of integrated response, enhanced inter agency/service communications and dramatically expanded inter-agency exercises. Realistic and varying threat scenarios were developed and exercised annually. I cover those improvements and the extended exercises in Chapter 20, “Going Forward”. One of the major differences in following years was that senior personnel including the Commanders in Chief, actually devoted the time to become involved in the exercises. History shows that is absolutely mandatory if any national level response is to succeed.
Unfortunately the recent incident in Hawaii suggests that the integration of emergency response may have slipped once again. We know that the military was quite aware that no ballistic missile was incoming, however they were not advised of the EMS test nor did they appear to have had a way to immediately communicate a follow up message to the public, worse yet the system itself had been computerized to the extent that immediate human intervention was impossible. Beyond that the test itself was limited, sirens were not triggered, the news media were not involved – it had all become mechanical and so routine that it was a matter of button pushing (which is always a terribly bad practice). It also appears that Homeland Security had not been involved in the test nor was even aware of it. But apart from communications failures, clearly the EMS system had not been thoroughly exercised in a comprehensive, real world sense – such an exercise should have included the steps to be taken if just the human error/false alarm was initiated.
All that is bad enough, but having researched and written about how hard it is to get both agency principals and the Commander in Chief involved in serious real world emergency response exercises I have to wonder if the sorts of interdepartmental exercises that evolved following 9/11 are even being carried on at all? There seems to have been no reassurance from Washington that the Hawaiian incident was an aberration, or even a statement on corrective action at the level of Homeland Security – as far as I can tell there was simply finger pointing at Hawaii. That plus the news articles below suggests to me there is truly cause for concern:
If someone finds evidence of integrated emergency exercises still being conducted (outside the military which routinely does them) or of senior officials, agency principals or the CIC being involved in emergency response activities, please share it.