Hawaii Missile Alert: how would you fare?

Author: MATTHEW HARPER

Several years ago, while working at Emergency Management Australia, I attended a conference on disaster preparedness. It was in an earthquake prone, known tsunami hot spot, so - being me - I went prepared with a survival kit designed to cope with the first 48 hours of any crisis.

In the first day, we experienced a magnitude 5 earthquake and a series of rolling aftershocks. As such, I couldn’t sleep and was convinced the next one was going to be the big one.

On the second day, a Tsunami Alert System siren activated across the island. It was louder than any siren I’d ever heard before and I quickly began the seven-floor climb to the roof, survival kit in hand.

Arriving about 8 minutes later, I was alone except for a young American couple. They’d come straight from the pool, through the hotel, up the stairs and seemed hopeful of sharing my survival kit.

So, what happened? Turns out, it was just a test.

On this particular island, test announcements are made after the test occurs and we soon learned the sirens went off most Tuesdays around 2pm. While my new American friends were embarrassed, I was just incredibly happy to have completed the stair climb quite so quickly. The staff, it goes without saying, thought it was the funniest thing they’d seen for some time.

As a crisis professional, I’ve been watching the commentary regarding the recent incorrect missile alert in Hawaii with keen interest. The way people react to sudden onset crisis has fascinated me for many years. In particular, how businesspeople lead or manage during a crisis.

Photo: The Daily Beast

Photo: The Daily Beast

The idea that America’s island state could be at risk grew steadily during 2017 and Hawaiian officials have clearly been undertaking work to be ready for any eventuality.

On December 1st, the Washington Post reported on the first test of the new Hawaiian emergency siren system and the next day a National Public Radio story covered the level of concern felt by residents, the preparation work being done in schools and the reactions of business and workers.

Importantly – but unfortunately – the media reporting after the false test focussed on the failures, errors and problems involved with the system, which led to the message being sent. In an ideal world, reports would have focussed on what residents should do to get it right in case of a real event.

The tests were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and the employee responsible for sending the message lost their job. But officials who risk their reputations to prepare communities for crises should be applauded not vilified.

Individuals and organisations must be constantly thinking of, and planning for, potential crisis challenges. We should all be wondering whether enough has been done to prepare our families and organisations for sudden disaster.

Is an evacuation plan in place for a terror warning? Can your organisation secure its premises in a sudden storm? What happens after a chemical spill? Can leaders provide guidance or assistance to their staff during an external disruption, like say, a city’s rail system shutting down unexpectedly?

Whatever plans are in place need to be practised and drilled. There’s no point knowing what the plan is if you can’t actually follow through with the instructions. Efforts must be made to ensure front-line staff can provide the necessary guidance and leadership to other staff, customers and visitors. While a communications plan reaching everyone under your organisation’s real or perceived care should be enacted.

Tigertail can help your business prepare and exercise for the crisis times; and that will have you better prepared for everyday disruptions, like the trains.