Missile warning and false alarms: what warnings do we have in Australia?

missile warning

“Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” – Not a text message that should be issued to the masses lightly, or so you would think. What public warning systems do we have in Australia, what checks and balances are in place to prevent ‘false’ alarms? and what training is offered to the public to know how to respond? Russell Boon, Director, CAPACITY Building Emergency Management, investigates.

“Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill”. – Not a text message anyone wants to receive, yet on January 15th, 2018 Hawaiian residents and tourists alike were alerted via their phones. The message some 40 minutes later was revealed to have been broadcast in error and another message was broadcast alerting people to the mistake.

Mistakes happen, but for something so important, something that has the potential to impact upon every member of a society, you can be forgiven for assuming that significant checks and balances are in place to ensure that no mistakes can be made.

To make matters worse, this very same error was repeated within 48 hours, this time in Japan. Fortunately, this time, the message was rescinded and counteracted within 5 minutes. However, that still poses the question as to how a public warning of this magnitude can be broadcast by a professional agency without significant verification.

In the case of Hawaii, a routine internal test involving the state’s Emergency Alert System an employee hit the live-alert button by mistake.

Three minutes later, the agency had confirmed that there was in fact no missile threat. Police were quickly notified and social media announced the mistake. But the text explaining the error wasn’t sent for 38 minutes, in part because no such text had been pre-scripted.

In the case of Japan, the incorrect message was selected from a drop-down list on a computer aided warning system.

In the days since these incidents, Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency has received threats against employees for the fear and anguish they caused. As with all events things will calm down and we may even look back on this event with a level of amusement.

However, the mass warning and call to action of any major population is fraught with massive implications and risk. The weight of making the decision to alert a population is enormous. To highlight how easily, good intentions can run off the rails, you need only look back at the successive hurricanes that struck the US in 2017.

As Hurricane Harvey churned toward the Texas coast, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told people to stay put. Don’t evacuate, he said. Ride out the storm. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott conversely told Houstonians that if he were living in the area, he’d head north. “If you have the ability to evacuate and go someplace else for a little while, that would be good.Local officials, in response, repeated on their advice: “Don’t go.” The decision came under scrutiny. Harvey brought “unprecedented” amounts of rainfall to the region — and successive Hurricanes were lined up in the Caribbean. Why were officials wary of calling an evacuation?

Lessons learned in 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Hurricane Rita made its way toward Houston. Rita was even stronger than Katrina — and Houston residents had just witnessed what happened to New Orleans residents who decided to stay put. Nobody wanted to repeat that mistake. The result: The largest evacuation in U.S. history. Texas legislators estimated that 3.7 million people left the Houston region in the evacuation effort.

Unfortunately, dozens of people died on the road — in a horrific bus fire, in traffic accidents, of heat stroke in 38C degree heat. Cars ran out of petrol leaving abandoned vehicles to amplify the traffic chaos. After all that, Rita changed course and missed Houston. The direct death toll from the storm itself was less than 10, a fraction of the death toll of the evacuation.

In all large-scale emergencies, the calculations for public warnings are immense. Hence the need for stringent safeguards to avoid mistakes.

We in Australia in the coming year, are staring down an extreme fire danger season due to a relatively dry winter. This may result in the requirement for evacuations of country areas or even city fringes. The current mass warning systems deployed throughout Australia are taking shape largely thanks to the efforts of our Federal and State Emergency Management Agencies in response to wide area emergencies such as floods and bushfires. However, they certainly lend themselves to other emerging threats such as terrorist attacks and now, incoming ballistic missiles.

So where does Australia stand when it comes to detection of and public warnings for potential inbound nuclear weapons?

The answer is two-fold. The Australian Defence Force has had little cause since Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles became commonplace during the cold war, to specifically devote money and resources to monitor and track international missile launches. Not being nuclear armed ourselves has significantly reduced our changes of being targeted in the first place. In light of this, Australia has focussed significant effort in developing surveillance of approaches by air and sea to our island continent resulting in innovative technology such as the Jindalee ‘over the horizon’ radar.

As far as tracking missile launches thousands of kilometres from Australia, we rely upon our allies in the region of the launch and allies with capabilities to monitor huge expanses of the globe to provide a warning if necessary.

For instance, with regards to North Korea we’d rely upon Japan and South Korea to alert us to a launch and the United States for warnings regarding trajectory and possible destination/target.

From there, Australia’s mass alerting systems and media will notify the public. How quick, and how effective this chain of events is, is currently not well known.

Lastly, returning to the warnings issued in Hawaii and Japan, residents were told to seek shelter immediately. This encompasses a three-step process when dealing with anything radioactive. The process encompasses shielding, distance and time.

Shielding in the case of an atomic explosion means to relocate inside a substantial building or structure. Even better, if that building has a basement. The addition of moving below ground level means that if the building above is subjected to significant blast impact and collapses, the chance of survival is increased by being below the structure and radiation is reduced by placing more material between you and the radioactive source.

Distance refers to simply evacuating away from the radioactive source or area. This may be impossible for people in proximity to the expected impact zone and they should seek shelter and consider moving away from the impact area only after the event. Quite possibly after three days or more as recommended by many emergency agencies and militaries.

Time refers to limiting the amount of time that you expose yourself to radiation.

Australia has very few, if any publicly accessible dedicated ‘bomb shelters’. Therefore, if you are worried about the threat of being targeted with nuclear missiles, you should take comfort that the recent warning errors will focus attention on media and government warning safeguards. Your job in the meantime, is to note places you could seek safety in, if it comes to that.

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Alana Lowes
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