False Alert Demonstrates Importance of ‘People Process’

By Christine Sakuda, THG Executive Director

False Missle Alert : Reuters Hugh Gentry

A combination photograph shows screenshots from a cell phone displaying an alert for a ballistic missile launch and the subsequent false alarm message in Hawaii, Jan. 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hugh Gentry

 

I was getting breakfast ready for my family on the morning of Jan. 13 when I received the emergency text alert, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

By the time the official “false alarm” text was issued 38 minutes later, I had already made calls to other family members throughout Hawaii, extended “I love you(s),” and exchanged hugs with those whom we were with. Alerts also came in from my children’s schools over the rapidly unfolding situation as individuals and agencies alike sought clarity and definitive confirmation of an “all clear.”

Looking back, that Saturday’s mishap and the events that followed were keen reminders of the importance of the “people process” in any system, regardless of technological platform or application. While we may have technology at our fingertips, it is the human interaction with technology that can be the weak link.  Modernization of outdated systems includes people’s adaptation of meaningful processes that takes advantage of  technology.  This requires constant vigilance to keep pace with technology’s rapid evolution. Developing people processes to adapt and manage technology in a meaningful way is often the greatest challenge to any modernization effort.

Recognizing that our state can do better, the governor has directed Brig. Gen. Kenneth S. Hara, deputy adjutant general of the Hawaii Department of Defense, to review the current emergency response system. This will include notifications and warnings, as well as recommendations for improvement. An initial action plan will be provided no later than Feb. 13, with a final report no later than March 15.

Looking further ahead, it is encouraging that last summer Hawaii was one of the first states in the nation to opt-in to FirstNet, a first-responder network that, once built, will use advanced technologies to enable fire, police, EMS, emergency management and other public safety personnel to communicate and share information. FirstNet, or First Responder Network Authority, is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, authorized by Congress in 2012 to develop, build and operate the nationwide network. Although opting in was only the first step, and the network – which now includes 56 territories and states – remains to be developed and launched, FirstNet represents the next evolution in modern emergency notifications.

“As is frequently noted by those most experienced with modernizing systems, updating the technology is the often-easy part, but updating processes can simultaneous present both the greatest risks and greatest opportunities.”

In the meantime, like many others I look forward to a clear-headed and thoughtful analysis of what happened on Jan. 13 and recommendations on where current processes and technology can be improved. It is our hope lessons will be learned about the importance of not only testing but questioning the testing processes as government strives to keep pace with technology and the new ways citizens obtain their information in the digital age. As is frequently noted by those most experienced with modernizing systems, updating the technology is the often-easy part, but updating processes can simultaneous present both the greatest risks and greatest opportunities.

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