Hawaii false alarm shows importance of focused emergency planning

This was a message from a Hawaiian mother to her daughter in California after the false alert.
A mother in Hawaii sent this to her daughter in California after the false alert.

The errant missile warning that alarmed people in Hawaii on January 13 showed the importance of emergency planning that includes anticipating possible errors. Apart from other issues with the response, there can be no defending that it took more than 10 minutes after the mistaken wide-area alert for corrective messages to start going out. In fact, the full-scale “nevermind” message was sent more than 30 minutes after the false alarm. That half-hour was filled with preventable emotion, tension, and fear. Parents sent heart-wrenching messages to children, people rushed to get home, and stores closed in a hurry.

The concept of Communications Golden Hour™ that I detail in my forthcoming book focuses on the importance of having the right steps identified in advance of an emergency and thinking through in a meticulous way all the things that could happen — including mistakes. This is a crucial element of emergency planning.

If a real life-threatening emergency occurs, police or others responsible for emergency management must get a message out rapidly – within 3-5 minutes in most instances. However, they also have many other immediate priorities besides communications. Thus, turning communications over to a professional communicator – or someone else who is charged specifically with communications – within the initial minutes is every bit as important as dispatching fire engines, ambulances, SWAT teams or any other emergency responders.

This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.
This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.

A professional communicator needs to immediately confirm that the message already distributed is accurate. The next step is to craft a follow-up message that can get out within 20 minutes of the onset of the emergency. The first message alerts the public. The second provides instructions on what to do. It also can advise that the situation is under control or escalating. That did not happen in Hawaii, which added to the confusion.

State officials in Hawaii will need to make their own decisions about the wisdom of an alert system that can be triggered by a single individual. In many systems, a duty officer can send an urgent warning to trigger responses from emergency officials, but a wide-area alert like this one would require another command-level supervisor’s authority.

Residents of Honolulu also criticized the emergency management agency for providing an alert that was not actionable: few people had any idea where to go for shelter, and there was no guidance about where to find this information. With Internet and phone traffic rapidly overloaded in those frantic few minutes Saturday morning, a follow-up message with information on what to do would have helped a lot. In a real emergency, people need to know what to do, and you cannot presume they will remember information that was previously provided when they are under stress of the moment.

Especially in an area where so many people are visitors, emergency messages need to factor in the idea that not everyone receiving the message has the same knowledge that residents may have.

“I noticed that everybody was just stopped in their tracks, getting on the phone and calling people,” said Seth Buckley, a Honolulu lawyer who was out doing photography when the alert went out. “There was a lot of, ‘I received this, now what the heck do I do?'”

Chicago resident Matthew Griffo was there on vacation when the alert shook him out of bed.

“We had just been at Pearl Harbor, so it was pretty fresh in our minds how they thought it was a false alarm. We thought we would rather be on the side of caution,” so he and his family rushed to their hotel lobby. Once there, they realized there was no shelter nearby, said Griffo.

What questions do you have about the key elements of your communications emergency plan? I’ll answer questions left in the comments.