By Hank Boerner
The Hawaii crisis story caught my eye. For much of my career I was the point person in crisis events, preparing, strategizing, managing the response, communicating what was known (and avoiding speculation on the unknown), and working on “solutions” (to avoid this happening again) and then moving to recovery phase.
T’ain’t easy work! I remember reading that about 12% of the population is suitable for leading in crisis situations and I guess I got the luck-of-the-draw in my DNA. I thrived on it.
I was not alone. After a series of corporate crisis events in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, crisis management became a well-organized function within the corporate sector, at least among large-caps. Crisis consultants flourished!
My “full immersion” began at American Airlines, where I was trained and “manned the desk” on numerous critical incidents and a handful of real crises events. We had a great system at the time, with a rotating 7-day/24 hour “watch” program in our PR / communications department (seven of us rotated through the drill every seven weeks for 24 hour duty).
Then on to state government, as a strategist and communicator for the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the authority’s Long Island Rail Road (busiest commuter line in the nation) and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Some days we had simultaneous crises events erupting at the same time! And being in the political sphere, things were often complicated; even in those bygone days, political opponents were very vicious.
The New York Stock Exchange recruited me to be head of communications — and just think about the “swirl” of news around the world’s busiest stock exchange. I was part of a “reform” effort to help the NYSE communicate better – and we had a slew of crisis events during my time at 11 Wall Street. Great years! Great training and learning.
The above prepared me for another two decades with the great Rowan & Blewitt consultancy in helping corporate, financial services and even NGO clients in crisis management matters (including crisis planning, response, training, drills, on-the-spot crisis management services, recovery implementation).
And so my constant curiosity about what other folks do when a crisis whacks their organization.
One of the lessons I learned was that the crisis trigger (“the damned thing”) is never the only thing going on; all crises are complicated and a lot of things may be going all wrong at the same time.
Another lesson is that you can prepare/prepare/prepare – and still things will go wrong. Bad things happen to nice people.
An example of this is a crisis training (“real world scenario”) workshop in Mexico for a corporate client. We had everything lined up – dramatic videos, manuals, check list, actors playing a role, dummy phone calls coming in, everything to make the heart pound and the forehead drip with sweat.
We gathered the participating managers in the room, closed the door, and turned on the TV with simulations of police, fire and ambulances racing to the facility. Suddenly, they all whipped out cell phones and began barking orders to subordinates – the whole facility went nuts! (Yes, we had told them to not use phones – to leave them outside of the room.)
And that brings me to the thorough reporting today in The Washington Post by correspondents Brian Fund and Mark Berman about the recent incident in Hawaii with the false alarm on a missile strike.
The Hawaii January Caper
Think about the environment – the set up: The President of the United States of America, most powerful country on Earth, is Twittering threats to the “Little Robot Man,” the unpredictable leader of what we call, “The Hermit Kingdom”, who is developing and testing atomic weapons and the long-range missiles needed to deliver same. As he says, we can hit you, USA.
Stated targets of Robot Man: the island of Guam (with U.S. military bases); nearby Japan (our ally we are pledged to defend); South Korea (just across the 38th Parallel, and the target of the north’s attack in June 1950 on Seoul); and…the State of Hawaii!
Part of whose culture is the long-term remembrance of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – a sleepy Sunday morning.
An alert in case of an actual attack on Hawaii today would be broadcast locally by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, of hurricane response fame); the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); and the wireless industry – local carriers on point, with the local emergency response center.
Of course, there is thorough planning and practice drills. Drills. More drills. Tests. Drills. Does everyone get the word, though – like, this is a drill / this is real / this is not real, it’s a drill?
Apparently not that January day.
The alert system is all set up and ready to go. The missiles may be coming at any moment. Everyone on the island-state will get the word when there are inbound missiles (giving you 15 minutes or so to do……what?).
So Wot Happened Here?
On January 13th (in the midst of vacation season) according to The Washington Post report on the follow-up FCC investigation, a night shift manager decided to test the incoming day shift workers with a “surprise,” spontaneous test of the alert system.
The day-time supervisor “appeared” to be aware of the test — but thought, well, this was for the night shift workers (not my daytime guys and gals).
So the day shift manager apparently was not at all prepared for the morning shift drill to be sprung. Got it so far?
The daytime drill begins — and an employee on the day shift thought the situation was real, not a drill, not a test, but an attack coming at him – he quickly looked at the Alert system’s computer pull-down menu and hit…the wrong button.
The message sent to everyone’s cell phone: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Remember that 15-minute time period for “doing something”. Some 38 minutes went by before the “forgetaboutit” message went out.
Three minutes in, the day-shift manager sees a “false alarm” message on his cell phone. The governor is alerted (he will do something – later – see below). Seven l-o-n-g (very long!) minutes go by – hey, guys, there is no plan to manage a false alarm like this – -what do we do now!
Minutes tick by…tick, tick, tick. There’s widespread panic reported. Chaos. Then 26 minutes the managers come up with a way to do an all-clear (really!) and they started working on it.
Tick, tick, tick…14 minutes later the “correct” message gets broadcast. (Remember that, if you were there, maybe in a hotel room or on the beach or in a school, in a real attack you have 15 minutes warning!).
The standing drill protocol includes playing a recording by the U.S. Pacific Military Command — the recorded message is for drills by the emergency workers to warn them of the FAKE threat: “EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE.”
(Wonder if FAKE NEWS! chitter-chatter had any bearing on what happened?)
And, most important, the line — “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” – only to be used for real time incoming missile attacks. Makes sense then for Army, Navy and Air Force personnel to know: This is NOT a drill. The attack is coming!
The night shift manager played that recording for the day shift staff as part of the drill (he was setting up a realistic scenario, of course) – with the word “Exercise!” up front, and then “…this is not a drill – not a drill..”
Alas, the daytime worker pulling down the menu did not hear the first part – “exercise,” three times stated — but did hear, “this is not a drill”…and so, the warning went live at once.
The FCC investigation found that only that employee didn’t get the word, or didn’t understand that this was a drill. News reports tonight say that worker was dismissed.
# # #
The news out of Hawaii is that there are today no new emergency drills scheduled; there will be more warnings before drills; a second person (how smart!) will be assigned to confirm “yes or no” (is it the real deal or not); and the computer programs and menus will be adjusted.
In all of the planning, apparently there was no difference in the “user interface” for (1) test alerts and (2) sending an actual alert that a missile is inbound. We hope that the “Are you sure you want to send this Alert” on the drop down menu will be adjusted in some way.
Among the news items that Hawaiians saw during 2017 was…that the Cold War sirens of yesteryear’s scary days were being re-instated. That’s comforting…right?
Oh, and about Governor David Ige and his actions taken – The Washington Post story said it took a while for him to intervene and calm things down because…he forgot his Twitter password. Really.
And In The Aftermath
Every state and local emergency responder will be looking at their own plans and drills and applying the lessons from this escapade. That’s the good news for today. The FCC is going to order new approaches for cell phone alert systems. The State of Hawaii will take the steps to improve their alert system.
And so, dear friends and colleagues – remember what I said about things going wrong are usually not a single development that occurs but many things going whacko-all-at-once, complicating response (or even gaining an understanding of what is going on!).
Perhaps if the two heads of state taunting each other and hurling insults across the Pacific Ocean reaches would…refrain…the fear levels would subside.
On the Korean Peninsula, in Japan home islands, in the Pacific Basin, on Guam, on Hawaii. And inside the emergency response headquarters of Hawaii.
Yes, we have to be prepared for a crisis event including a missile attack. Yes, we have to plan and drill. Yes we have to give as much warning time as we can.
But mistakes do happen – all the time. Imagine that drill in a U.S. missile silo or worse – in the North Korean nation. Twitchy operators, nervous fingers…poised…God help us all!
We recall something the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte said: “There are not bad soldiers, only bad officers.” Hmmm.