22 January 2018

Emergency communications: How the Hawaii false alarm faux pas will lead to improving systems

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For thirty-eight frightening minutes on the 13th of January, the residents and tourists of Hawaii did not know how to react to a blood-curdling emergency alert on their mobiles: Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

Whilst luckily it was a false alarm and Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) took to Twitter shortly after to announce that there was no threat or missile headed towards the island, however, it took the better part of an hour for Hawaii’s EMA to issue an official retraction cancelling the alert.

It was nothing more than a human error, however, it raised legitimate questions regarding the process – just how trustworthy is the alert system after all? Is it a reliable system if mass panic is just one click away?

There is a silver lining - without a doubt, the Emergency Management Agencies across the USA as well as abroad will look into their systems to determine whether additional safeguards are required in order to prevent human error of such kind.

Incredibly, just days after the Hawaii faux pas, the Japanese national broadcaster NHK erroneously sent an alert warning about North Korea’s missile headed towards Japan. While the Japanese were speedy in retracting a false notification, it is still striking how easy such errors can occur and the incredible damage it can cause.

The lessons to be learnt from these stories are that humans are much better at engineering systems and machines as opposed to having full control of them.  Undoubtedly, nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technology to ever exist and when the safeguards fail, the potential harm is completely catastrophic. 

By Simona Zukaite

Simona joined Akolade and relocated to Sydney after eight years in Hong Kong where she worked for a leading media and publishing company producing legal and financial conferences in Asia-Pacific. Simona studied Law in the UK, Paris and Hong Kong and found her passion for events after working on an international arbitration law conference and moot trial competition in Hong Kong in 2012. The recent move is the next chapter of adventures Simona has sought to pursue in Australia following the running of an annual FX investment conference in Sydney for three consecutive years.

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