“Imagine learning that you have only minutes to live.”
That was the challenge posed this week by an irate Hawaii resident for whom the notion wasn’t a conceptual exercise, but a terrifying reality.
A million and a half Americans in the Aloha State were scared out of their gourds last weekend — as would be any of us — to receive a stark state-issued warning on their cell phones: Missile threat inbound … This is not a drill.
It was neither threat nor drill, but human error. And it has provided rich fodder for television comedians, but to Hawaiians who endured a half-hour of unimaginable horror, it was anything but funny.
Astonishingly, the mistake Saturday was echoed three days later in Japan, when that nation’s public broadcasting network sent out an alert warning that “North Korea likely to have launched” an inbound missile. That error was retracted within a few minutes.
The fear these messages engendered almost certainly speaks to the edgy tensions in the Pacific region. That’s home to the most vulnerable bystanders in the saber-rattling contest of big-button brinksmanship playing out between U.S. President Donald Trump and volatile North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Regardless of your political stance on Twitter taunts aimed at unhinged dictators, though, the Hawaii episode makes one point clear: There is no margin for error in our emergency warning operations. Technology and social media can turn a trash-bucket blaze into a roaring wildfire in the blink of an eye, and it took Hawaii emergency management officials 38 agonizing minutes to find the fire extinguisher, so to speak, to cancel the alert.
Yes, human error happens. But this was an error almost asking to be made: A clumsy, outdated drop-down menu of alert options ranging from high waves and Amber alerts to approaching nuclear annihilation; language couched in wonky abbreviations and government gibberish; an after-the-fact Keystone Kops fire drill during which nobody knew how to rescind the faulty public warning that the entire state was about to be incinerated.
“We all click the wrong link now and then,” said Seattle-based tech writer Devin Coldewey, “but the consequence isn’t destabilizing an entire state.”
It’s worse than putting the public through a few frightening minutes. If we lose confidence in our emergency warning operations, how can we identify a legitimate threat?
“I would have to think twice before acting on any future advisory,” one resident fumed to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The newspaper reported Tuesday that another man suffered a massive heart attack after bidding good-bye to his son and daughter over the phone during the false alarm.
Before other government jurisdictions point fingers, though, this might be a good time to review specific emergency warning protocols here in Texas.
The Texas Division of Emergency Management tells us today that it doesn’t issue direct wireless alerts. But that’s no reason to avoid serious and ongoing review.
It’s one thing to contemplate the unimaginable. It’s another to be told the unimaginable is here.