The Hawaii Saga

I simply don’t think I can refrain from some extended commentary on the Hawaii missile notification incident any longer.  I’ve tossed a few Tweets on this topic in the past couple of weeks, but as the layers of this onion are peeled back, more and more is being revealed.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but the number of half-truths that have been reported on this incident lead me to believe we still don’t know everything that transpired that morning.  Now that the FCC has leaned into this investigation, more and more information is being revealed, despite reports that the employee at the center of it gave limited cooperation in the investigation (likely at the advice of an attorney).  Most of my commentary is based upon information reported by the Business Insider and Washington Post which includes information from the ongoing FCC investigation.

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First, why was public notification of a false missile strike such a big deal?  The effective practice of notification and warning in emergency management relies on the transmission of accurate, timely, and relevant information.  Since emergency management is already challenged by a percentage of citizens that willfully don’t pay attention to warnings, don’t care about them enough to take action, or otherwise refuse to take action, the erosion of any of these pillars will degrade public trust in an already less than ideal environment.  We sometimes struggle to get accurate weather-related warnings issued, but when a warning is sent for a ballistic missile strike that isn’t occurring, that’s a significant error.  We certainly saw across social media the stories of people on the Hawaiian Islands as well as those in the continental US with friends and family in Hawaii.  The notification of an impending ballistic missile strike is terrifying to a population.  Imagine saying good bye to your family and loved ones for what you think is the last time.  What truly made this erroneous notification unforgivable was the 38-minute time span it took for it to be rectified.

While there is a lot of obvious focus on the employee who actually activated the alert, I see this person as only one piece of the chain of failures that occurred that morning.  It was first reported that the employee accidentally selected the wrong option in a drop-down menu; selecting an actual alert instead of a test.  While mistakes can and do happen in any industry, the processes we use should undergo reviews to minimize mistakes.  Those processes include the tools and technology we use to execute.  Certainly, any system that issues a mass notification should have a pop-up that says ‘ARE YOU REALLY SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS???’ or a requirement for verification by another individual.  I’ll note that the Business Insider article says there is a verification pop-up in the system they used, so clearly that wasn’t enough.

Findings released from the initial FCC investigation found that the employee apparently thought this was a real incident instead of an exercise, therefore, their action was intentional.  So, we have another mistake.  As mentioned before, the processes and systems we have in place should strive to minimize mistakes.  A standard in exercise management is to use a phrase similar to ‘THIS IS AN EXERCISE’ in all exercise communications.  By doing so, everyone who receives these communications, intentionally or otherwise, is aware that what is being discussed is not real.  I would hope that if the warning point employee heard that phrase with the order to issue an emergency alert, the outcome would have been different.  According to the FCC report, the phrase ‘Exercise, exercise, exercise’ was used, but so was the phrase ‘this is not a drill’.  While reports indicate some issues with past performance of this employee, I would caution that messages such as this are confusing and should never be issued in this manner.  They need to take a serious look at their exercise program and how it is managed and implemented.

Next, 38 minutes of time passed before a retraction was issued.  Forgive me here, but what the fuck happens in 38 minutes that you can’t issue a retraction?  There are timelines posted in the Business Insider and Washington Post articles on this matter.  I believe that what I’m reading is factual, but I shake my head at the ineptitude of leadership that existed, ranging from the employee’s supervisor, to the agency director, and all the way up to the Governor.  There is no reason a retraction could not have been issued within minutes of this false alarm.  We see things in this timeline such as ‘drafting a retraction’ and ‘lost Twitter password’.  Simply bullshit.  There isn’t much to draft for an initial retraction other than ‘False Alarm – No missile threat’.  We know from later in the timeline that this could have been sent through the same system that sent the initial message.

It’s noted that Hawaii EMA didn’t have a plan in place for issuing retractions on messages.  An easy enough oversight, I suppose, but when they report that this same employee had issued false messages on two previous occasions, a plan would have been developed for something that was an obvious concern.

A possible path to correction is a bill that may be introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz which would give the US Departments of Defense and Homeland Security the responsibility to notify the public of an incoming missile attack.  Is this a perfect fix? No.  Consider that weather alerts can be issued by the National Weather Service, or by state or local emergency management agencies based upon NWS information or what they are actually observing on the ground.  I’m a big believer in state’s rights as well as their ultimate responsibility to care for their populations, so I believe the states should have the ability to issue such alerts, however they should generally be defaulting to DoD, as DoD has the technology to detect an incoming attack.

There are numerous layers of failure in this situation which need to be examined and addressed through rigorous preparedness measures.  It obviously was an embarrassing occurrence for Hawaii EMA and I’m sure they are working to address it.  The intent of my article isn’t to harp on them, but to identify the potential points of failure found in many of our systems.  Unfortunately, this situation makes for a case study that we all can learn from.  Current technology provides every state, county, city, town, and village the ability to access an emergency alert system of some type.  Some are municipal systems, some are regional, some are state, and some are national (IPAWS).  We access these systems through custom developed programs or commercially available interfaces.  These systems will instantly issue alerts to cell phones, email accounts, social media, radio, and TV; and some will still activate sirens in certain localities.  The technology we have enables us to reach a high percentage of our populations and issue critical communications to them.  While the technology is great and the message we send is important, it’s only one element of a good public information and warning program.  Clearly, we see from the occurrence in Hawaii, that we need to have solid plans, policies, procedures, systems, training, and exercises to ensure that we can effectively and efficiently issue (and retract) those messages.  So crack open your own plans and start making a list of what needs to be improved.

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC SM

Emergency Alerting – A Case Study

Two days ago, much of the northeast was subject to a powerful storm front, which brought high winds, torrential rains, lightning, and several yet to be confirmed tornadoes.  Corresponding with these threats, areas saw a variety of National Weather Service warnings and watches.  Needless to say, when this emergency alert came up on my phone in the midst of these storms, I assumed the shelter in place order was weather related.  Well, you know what they say about assuming things… and of course I should have known better.

While the area of the alert didn’t impact me, Whitestown is just a couple of towns over, so after a few minutes I figured I should do a bit of research to see if whatever prompted the alert might eventually impact my area.  Unfortunately, ‘pressing for more’, as the alert message indicates, gave no further information.  News media in my area is notoriously slow and uninformative for a period of time, something that held true with this event as well.  Approximately 20 minutes later, a local news outlet Tweeted a message about law enforcement activity in that area related to an armed suspect.

Public information and warning is a big deal.  When we don’t communicate clearly and concisely with the public, we can suffer unintended consequences. While I’m not aware of any severe unintended consequences from the lack of any additional information from this emergency alert, officials must understand that the public (and other public safety professionals) want additional information.  They may also need it so they can make better decisions.

This particular example certainly should have included some brief context as to why the alert was issued.  Given the standing tornado watch which was in place at the time, I’m sure there were plenty of others who assumed this was for a tornado or other storm activity.  Such an occurrence would give me cause to gather my family in the basement for safety, rather than locking my doors, closing my blinds, and ensure that no family members left the house.  Shelter in place can mean a lot of things to different people and adding context could have assisted with ensuring better public safety.  There was also no follow up to this alert lifting the shelter in place message.  (Note: the ‘No longer in effect’ tag is my own, as an effort to be responsible with the image)

While I applaud the use of public alerting tools, issues such as this are seen far too often.  Jurisdictions should have public information and warning components to their emergency operations plans, with specific procedures outlined for not only how to activate an alert, but the proper messaging which should be included to maximize message effectiveness.  Sure, you do it, but do you do it well?

What do you do to ensure effectiveness of your messaging?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Exercising the Recovery Mission Area

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I get pretty excited about it – I got a blog request!  Last week, Darin, a LinkedIn connection, messaged me with a request to post my thoughts on exercising the recovery phase (or mission area) of emergency management.  His idea, as he expressed it to me, came from discussion at a Public Health Preparedness conference he was attending, where they were discussing ESF 8 (Public Health and Medical Services) continuity of operations and recovery exercises.  Challenge accepted!

When it comes to Recovery exercises, my first thought is that they are horribly underutilized.  We conduct a lot of exercises in the Response mission area, but it’s a rare occasion that we even mention Recovery.  The reasoning here is pretty easy – Response is sexy.  It’s the lights and sirens, saving lives, put out the fire, pull people from the wreckage kind of stuff that makes a big impact.  Recovery is often viewed as slow, tedious, bureaucratic, engineering kind of stuff.  Well… yeah… but there is a lot more to it.  Since when we plan exercises, one of the first things we do is to identify what Core Capabilities will be tested, let’s look at the Core Capabilities of the Recovery Mission Area.  Within each, I’ll mention some ideas you can incorporate into exercises.

The Big Three – Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning.  These Core Capabilities are found in every mission area and are sometimes applied differently.

  • Planning – Yeah, we should have recovery plans. I would argue that we have entered the recovery phase when all or most of the first two incident management priorities have been addressed – Life Safety and Incident Stabilization.  Sometimes these are resolved quickly, sometimes they take some time.  There are some fairly complex issues to be addressed in the recovery phase (many of which we will identify through the Core Capabilities), and we don’t do them often, therefore we should most certainly plan for them.  Remember, we exercise plans and capabilities – therefore our plans (and policies and procedures) are a significant focus when it comes to Recovery exercises.    This Core Capability is where continuity of operations plans will also fall.  Can your organization survive the lasting impacts of a disaster?
  • Operational Coordination – Recovery activities often involve organizations that had little to no activity during the Response phase. Most of these organizations are non-traditional responders who don’t usually operate under more strict command and control models, such as ICS, but in the Recovery phase of a disaster, I certainly advocate that they do.  Many of these agencies, typically the human services types of organizations, are very good at coordination and cooperation, as their daily priorities dictate that working with others is how needs are addressed.  The big challenge we often see here, though, is the introduction of some other organizations – typically those with regulatory responsibilities.  Regulation usually requires bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy usually requires time – lots of time – especially when exceptions are requested.  It’s really important to consider all stakeholders when planning an exercise to ensure that you get a chance to see how they interact, what the information flow and chain of authority looks like, what benefits they bring, and how they can work together in a timely fashion for the common good.
  • Public Information and Warning – We often take for granted the role of public information and warning in the Recovery phase. There are many benefits to keeping external stakeholders informed of what’s going on during Recovery.  Consider elected officials, business and industry, and special interest groups, along with the general public.  Your PIO and possibly your JIC should be just as involved in Recovery phase exercises as they are in those for the Response phase.

Aside from the ‘big three’, the Recovery mission area shares a Core Capability with the Response mission area – Infrastructure Systems.  Long-term restoration and rebuilding of infrastructure can lead to lengthy discussions in a Recovery-focused workshop or tabletop exercise.  What are the priorities for rebuilding?  Who will do it?  How will it be funded?  What are the completion timelines?  Will it be rebuilt the same or differently?  What are the impacts of doing it differently?  Who is impacted by this?  What do we do while we are waiting for it to be rebuilt?  Who makes decisions?  All important things to consider.

The first unique Core Capability in the Recovery mission area is Economic Recovery.  I was recently asked to present at a conference for a niche professional association comprised of professionals found in government, private sector, and non-profits.  While we will be covering topics in Hazard Mitigation and Preparedness, the biggest focus will fall within Economic Recovery.  Economic Recovery involves businesses reopening and people getting back to work to serve customers, make money, and become customers themselves.  After a disaster, it is absolutely vital for a community to get back on its feet, and the center of that is the local economy.  While many disaster impacts may be a relative drop in the bucket for larger companies, smaller businesses may have a hard time recovering – the central pieces of this are infrastructure restoration (see previous paragraph) and cash flow.  The SBA, USDA, and even IRS have mechanisms to assist with cash flow issues.  And don’t forget insurance!  Bring these and other stakeholders to the table to discuss economic recovery.  Consider priorities and mechanisms that must be in place to meet needs to support these priorities.  Your local chamber of commerce and other business associations will certainly want to be part of these exercises.  Does your jurisdiction have a business operations center (BOC)?  If not, consider it.  If you do, exercise it!

Health and Social Services.  This is the heart of all matters related to ESF 8 (Public Health and Medical Services), which Darin mentioned.  While this Core Capability is an extension of the Response mission area Core Capability of Public Health, Healthcare, and Emergency Medical Services; it is also so much more.  ESF 8 activity after disasters can last months or even years, particularly with ongoing issues such as medical monitoring and psychological impacts.  Eventually many of these services are absorbed into the system of regular service providers, but for a time the circumstances of the disaster may require some special coordination or monitoring.  The coordination needed involves an amalgamation of organizations at all levels of government, not for profits, and the private sector.  This can involve ongoing coordination with insurance companies, general practitioners and specialists; and must address the needs of everyone fairly and consistently, regardless of any differences, including their own financial resources or insurance coverage.  Tracking data related to the care and services provided is often important, but consideration must be given to HIPAA and other privacy laws.  Exercises can benefit from scenarios, such as exposures to radiological, biological, or chemical sources, which will drive discussion on the types of services to be provided, who will provide them, at whose cost, and for how long.  Many of these discussions should include topics of how to avoid social stigmatization of clients, sharing information between organizations, and the full range of social services that individuals and families may require.

Housing is typically the hardest nut to crack in all of disaster recovery.  Relative to need, there is little government owned housing stock available.  What is available may require waiting lists and relocation to access.  While many home owners are insured, we know that it takes some time for home owners to receive payment from insurance companies, and insurance is rarely at 100% coverage for losses.  Those that don’t own their own homes are often the left with the most dire situations.  While ‘FEMA trailers’ have provided some medium-term solutions, there are many issues to address.  I posit that plans at all levels are inadequate to address housing needs after a disaster.  If you have a plan, get a good exercise team to write a great scenario to test it.  If you don’t have a plan, conducting a workshop to identify and address major planning issues is the way to go.  A housing exercise is probably going to be one of the more eye opening yet depressing exercises you’ve ever done.

Lastly is the Core Capability of Natural and Cultural Resources, which focuses on the recovery of libraries and museums, documents and art, as well as helping to restore our own environment after a disaster.  Activities can range from restoring a historical landmark to major engineering projects to restore a wetland.  These activities can involve a great deal of technical expertise as well as regulation.  FEMA, the EPA, and the National Parks Service are often big players in these types of activities.

As for what types of exercises to conduct, that’s largely dependent upon the status of your plans and if you have conducted exercises on these plans before.  I always suggest starting with discussion-based exercises.  We often forget about seminars, which are more about conveying information than obtaining feedback, but are still valuable for discussing initiatives and new plans.  Workshops not only support the planning process to develop plans, they can also serve to facilitate a detailed review of a plan in its final draft stages.  Most Recovery exercises I have experience with have been tabletop exercises, which use a scenario to provide context to discussion questions for a group of stakeholders.  This is a great way to exercise decision making and to talk through the key tasks associated with plans.  Disaster recovery involves a lot of policy-level decision making, which is ideal for a tabletop.

Operations-based exercises for disaster recovery are found much less often.  Drills can certainly be conducted to test focused aspects of plans and procedures.  Drills in Recovery can help identify strengths and weaknesses of our processes, both for ourselves and for those we are trying to serve.  Functional exercises are broader and more encompassing than drills.  Much can be gained from a Recovery mission area functional exercise, but make sure that it’s grounded in reality.  Most jurisdictions don’t have an EOC activated for Recovery mission area activities. If you don’t, don’t try to run an exercise within that environment.  Some functions, however, may be run, at least for a time, from some sort of operations/coordination center, such as a health operations center (HOC).  With a good scenario focusing on addressing longer-term issues in the aftermath of a response, they can be done successfully.  Be sure to develop a pretty solid ‘ground truth’, however, to support the exercise, as much of Recovery is dependent upon what was done in Response, so players will need this context.  With a bit more complication, a functional exercise could be run virtually, with people participating from their own regular work stations as they often do during Recovery operations.  Testing Recovery plans in full scale exercises is significantly challenging based on the array and type of activities.  Because of the focus of activities, continuity of operations plans are likely among the most suited for full scale Recovery mission area exercises.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences exercising Recovery mission area plans and capabilities.  What ideas do you have?  What best practices have you found?

As always, thanks for reading!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness!