Not Just a False Alarm

On Saturday morning, January 13, 2018, Hawaiian residents received a frightening statewide alert about a ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii on their phones, radios, and televisions. This alert sent widespread panic throughout the islands as residents and visitors scrambled to find safety and feared that this would be the end, only to later find out it was a false alarm. Multiple news outlets have covered the story, and phrases like “inexcusable human error” and “lack of reasonable safeguards” are being thrown around. However, as we wait for the full report to be released, there are several takeaways that we can look at already.


Response Time

The warning test was triggered statewide by the State Warning Point, HI-EMA, at 8:07 a.m. HST. By 8:10 a.m., the local military realized that no launch had happened. The alert was officially canceled at 8:13 a.m., but the message to tell residents and visitors that there was no threat wasn’t actually broadcasted until 8:45 a.m.

That’s nearly 40 minutes between finding out that there was no threat and notifying everyone. 40 unnecessary minutes of fear and panic. Timeliness of emergency notification is critical in every situation.

As we see here, timeliness not only plays a role in getting information out about the emergency but letting everyone know the situation has been handled. In an emergency, 40 minutes is unacceptable. An effective emergency notification system should only take seconds to send out a comprehensive alert.


Simplicity of the System

We’re all human, and as humans we make mistakes. Add the stress and anxiety of an emergency to the equation, and human-error is bound to happen. That’s why emergency mass notification systems should be simple to understand and easy to use. You shouldn’t have to deal with a complex system in the middle of a life-threatening situation. System elements such as easy alert setup, preset alerts, and prefilled alert text help make sending an alert a breeze.


Mass Notification Testing Strategy

Testing your emergency notification system is a crucial component to proper system maintenance. Testing helps to make sure the system runs smoothly and allows you to fix any issues before there is a real emergency. There are several practices we recommend to ensure your system testing goes off without a hitch.

  • Tell the necessary personnel - As we saw with the situation in Hawaii, police and military personnel were unaware that the alert was a test gone wrong. Tell your local or campus police when you plan to run a test. This gets them involved as well as provides the information if, for any reason, they are contacted.
  • Timing - It is best to run system tests when there is a lull in business or when the campus or facility is least populated or active. This way, any sirens or disruptions affect as few people as possible. Do not conduct system testing during shift changes or anytime someone is unable to be completely dedicated to conducting the test.
  • Standalone training environment - Practice makes perfect. Consider creating a stand-alone training system so that operators can train and familiarize themselves with the system without the possibility of sending false alerts. Use comprehensive exercise scenarios that require alert creation, activation, cancellation, and analysis so that authorized operators are well aware of how to use the system, minimizing potential mistakes during testing and real emergency activations.

The incident that took place in Hawaii has opened our eyes to different process improvement opportunities and best practices that can be adopted. We still have much to learn, as the details of this story continue to unfold, but what we can’t deny is how important it is to have an emergency notification system that can effectively reach everyone in a timely matter. The threat may not have been real this time, but the greatest thing we can take away from this is how to be ready when a real emergency happens.