Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Looking Beyond the False Alarm, Toward How We Prepare Our Communities for After the Alert

This past weekend, the sudden and disturbing news of a false alert notification of an inbound missile about to hit the Hawaiian Islands sent shockwaves through communities across the state, along with the rest of the country. We have read and heard the personal stories from Americans receiving an unexpected message of, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”, and actions that citizens across the islands took. Some hid in garbage bins and bathrooms for nearly an hour, others crying as they tried to contact loved ones to no avail. What many people reported, whether in interview with media or posts over social media, was that they had no idea what to do.

Hawaii Ballistic Missile Alerts, January 13, 2018

The issue of alert notifications is crucial for public safety agencies across the country. As planners for emergency response (whether an active threat, pending blizzards, tsunami, or other attacks), the messaging behind alert notifications is a serious one. Three questions traditionally have been asked by emergency managers and public information officers alike on how they alert their communities of an emergency incident:

  • When does an alert go out?
  • What does the alert say?
  • How does the alert happen?

Following this past weekend’s false alarm in Hawaii however, a new (or renewed) question should be asked by emergency planners when developing alert notifications: what happens after the alert?

Alert notifications are often considered by emergency managers as a speedy means for getting information out to the public as soon as possible. We ensure that these messages are broadcasted over a number of mediums (from social media, to email alerts, to television and radio). We plan and practice alert procedures, both as community-wide drills (including in Hawaii, where the nuclear warning siren drills were reinstated in December 2017), as well as emergency management and other agency -specific drills (including practice messaging over social media in a secure setting closed off to the actual internet on platforms like EMSocialSimulation.) Beyond planning, training, and exercising alert notifications is the need to get out into the community before any scripted alert notification goes out (in an exercise or in an actual event), and provide outreach, training, and drill opportunities for residents across a community so that when an alert goes out, residents know what to do (for which I believe was a major lesson learned in the Hawaii false alarm).

The challenge to make an ordinary citizen aware of what emergency actions to take (whether find shelter in an earthquake or tornado, or Get Out, Lock Out, Take Out in an active threat) is not a new one.  There are many great examples out there from initiatives like Gear Up Get Ready to the Great Shakeout earthquake drills that happens in communities across the world. Developing public outreach and education on what to do after an alert goes out is just as important for emergency managers to plan as the alert itself. We as emergency managers must plan, train, and exercise within our communities to what it means after the sirens blare and the alerts are sent. We must ensure that the alert emergency managers provide to citizens and what actions citizens should take immediately after the alert is planned, trained, and practiced. This linkage between the alert and immediate follow-up action is made through public education and practice drills.

While it is unfortunate that the false alarm occurred on such a wide scale, there is an opportunity to learn from the events that took place in Hawaii last weekend, and ensure that the linkage between alert and response are in sync through robust planning, training, exercise, and education.


David Schuld is the Lead for the Active Threat Portfolio at Hagerty Consulting, where he manages a group of subject matter experts to help support the development of plans, training, and exercises related to active threats such as active shooters, vehicular attacks, and complex coordinated terrorist attacks. Prior to joining Hagerty, David was the British Government’s Crisis Management Advisor for the United States, leading emergency preparedness cooperation and coordination from the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. For more information about how Hagerty can help your organization, visit our active threat event preparedness page here.