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Missile alerts would fall to FEMA under defense bill

An image of the alert erroneously sent to cellphones in Hawaii on 13 January 2018. (Apple Inc./WikiCommons)

The federal government is poised to take over responsibility for alerting the public of a missile threat under a provision authored by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that was inserted into the proposed National Defense Authorization Act. The measure was introduced in response to Hawaii’s false missile alert of two years ago.

The Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act aims to make sure that such a mistake doesn’t happen again. Rather than relying on an inconsistent patchwork of technologies and policies devised by state and local governments, responsibility for issuing alerts would rest with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“These alerts save lives, so we have to get it right,” said Schatz in a news release. “The federal government is always the first to know of a missile threat and they should be responsible for telling the rest of us.”

Hawaii residents received alerts on their cellphones on Jan. 13, 2018, warning of a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” and urging them to seek immediate shelter, causing panic throughout the state. It took 38 minutes before the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency finally retracted the alert.

Schatz said the false alarm in Hawaii highlighted weaknesses in the state’s emergency alert system, including inadequate safeguards to prevent mistakes.

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Hawaii suspended its missile alert system after the error, which was attributed to a former employee who became known as the “button pusher.”

Schatz said that upon passage, federal and local agencies would need to work together to develop a new alert system.

The measure is included in the proposed $738 billion defense policy bill that was agreed upon Monday by House and Senate negotiators. The agreement still needs to pass both chambers of Congress before it can be sent to President Donald Trump for approval. The National Defense Authorization Act sets the policy and funding levels for the Defense and Energy departments’ national security programs.

The ALERT Act is just one of a number of provisions that members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation were able to get into the defense bill this year that they say are important not just nationally, but for Hawaii. This includes a measure that would provide paid parental leave for federal workers, including 20,000 who reside in Hawaii, and a provision that would increase window safety for children residing in military housing. The defense bill also includes hundreds of millions in funding for military construction projects in Hawaii.

Paid family leave

Even though it’s not related to military defense, one of the major provisions to emerge out of House and Senate negotiations is a measure authored by Schatz that would provide 2.1 million nonmilitary federal workers with 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or a child who has just been adopted or is being fostered.

Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take off 12 weeks to care for a new child, but the leave is unpaid.

Democrats negotiating the NDAA in exchange for the parental leave provision. The measure also had support from Trump’s daughter and special adviser, Ivanka Trump.

Schatz told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he hopes the private sector will eventually follow the federal government’s lead. Only 16% of workers in the private sector have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I don’t think anyone should have to choose between receiving a paycheck and taking care of a new child, and we are pleased that we were able to do this for the nation’s largest employer and we hope it will set the pace for the private sector overall,” he said. “This is about the direction that things are moving. It is about time we joined the rest of the industrialized world in terms of having a humane parental leave policy, and we hope that this will spur companies to understand that this is not just the humane thing to do, but ultimately it is better for your organization because you have higher morale, higher productivity and lower turnover.”

Advocates of the measure have estimated that it would save the government $50 million in costs relating to employee turnover.

Hawaii’s military

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) also secured a provision that would amend Evan’s Law, a measure enacted last year to increase child window safety in military housing. The measure is named after a 4-year-old boy who died in 2011 after he fell out of a second-floor window on Aliamanu Military Reservation on Oahu.

Hirono’s amendment would require windows in privatized military housing that are 42 inches or lower from the floor have a window fall prevention device. The law currently applies to windows that are 24 inches from the floor.

Hirono also authored a provision that would reduce the amount of time it takes to hire child care providers on military installations.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-­Hawaii) was able to secure a measure within the defense bill that would require the Navy to hold quarterly community meetings to provide the public with the latest information about its Red Hill Underground Fuel Facility. The facility holds 20 underground fuel tanks that have a history of leaks, prompting concerns from regulators and the public that the fuel could at some point contaminate a nearby aquifer and major source of Oahu’s drinking water.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation also helped secure more than $424 million for military construction projects in Hawaii, including $173 million for the Homeland Defense Radar in Hawaii to improve the state’s defense against missile threats.

Schatz emphasized that the provisions in the NDAA show that members of Congress are still working across the aisle to get things done in Washington’s highly partisan political environment, which has been overshadowed by the Trump impeachment hearings.

“Even though we’re fighting like cats and dogs about other things, my core responsibility is still to legislate,” said Schatz. “And even when that gets hard and perhaps even more so when it gets hard, we have to dig in and do our jobs.”

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© 2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser