Recently, our emergency management colleagues in Hawaii faced every emergency manager's worst nightmare: sending a “live” alert to countless recipients in error. To make matters worse, this was not an alert warning about a traffic condition or the cancellation of a music concert or a rip current advisory. No, this was the worst possible scenario that I and many other practitioners could imagine. This was an alert to the entire state indicating that a ballistic missile was incoming and advising them to seek shelter immediately. Adding insult to the initial injury, there was a 38‐minute delay before an official message was delivered indicating that the first was sent in error and that there wasn't actually a missile threat. What happened next was not surprising. Fingers pointed, knees jerked, blame was placed, and calls were made for immediate reforms regarding the way the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency handles its alerts. My advice? Be careful what you wish for.Here is the challenge for anyone who is involved in the emergency messaging business. We need to make sure that we have enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively) to quickly identify that an emergency exists, gather as much information about that emergency as possible, translate it into carefully and strategically worded emails and text messages, and then hit the proverbial “button” to send.Successful organizations do this in a number of ways. First, they need to have an appropriate technological solution and software platform for their target audience. Next, their organizational hierarchy should be set up in such a way that bureaucratic levels of authorization do not stand in the way of message drafting, content approval, and ultimate transmittal of the alert. This is often easier said than done, particularly in the higher education realm.In my experience, there is a broad spectrum of autonomy as it relates to emergency alerting authority as well as the culture and thresholds associated with it. I have many colleagues who must get the approval of their vice president and in some cases even the president before being able to send an alert. Lastly, the group or individuals responsible for emergency alerting must be fully aware and comfortable with both the organizational protocols and the systems involved with the alert process.The situation in Hawaii was complicated by a number of factors, including the initial reports that officials thought they needed approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cancel the erroneous alert once it was sent using the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. IPAWS is the system that allows municipal agencies to send emergency messages to individuals who are in the local area by virtue of their mobile device being within a geofenced location rather than because they affirmatively opted in to receive alerts, e.g., tourists on vacation in Hawaii rather than lifelong residents. In addition, although the agency has several templates set up in the alert system, it did not have one ready that indicated the message was sent in error or to otherwise retract the first.I have never sheltered in place for fear of a nuclear attack, but I imagine 38 minutes is a really, really long time to wait thinking that the world is about to end. That is not being critical or flip; rather, it supports my entire point about the importance of what I will call the art of critical incident communications. Health care providers have a mantra they use when giving medication to their patients. They make sure it is the right drug, for the right patient, in the right concentration, for the right dose, at the right time, and for the right reason. Emergency messages are no different.Just like the health care provider who cannot take back the medication after it is injected into the intravenous line, emergency managers cannot magically (or easily) take back the message they send in error. Frequent training leads to familiarity, familiarity and practice lead to comfort, and comfort leads to successful outcomes. That said, agency officials should also not be so fast to “shoot the messenger,” for they need to rely on that messenger's comfort and commitment when the time comes to push the send button.About the authorLawrence M. Zacarese, Esq., is assistant chief of police and director of the Office of Emergency Management at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His column appears regularly in Campus Security Report. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campus Security Report – Wiley
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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