The Emergency Alert System Dilemma: How can authorities leverage technological advancements to aid (and not diminish) strategic disaster risk reduction endeavors?

People across the globe have come to rely heavily on technology, which has proven to be an exceedingly effective tool for wireless emergency alert systems. Wireless emergency alert systems can take a number of forms, but primarily use cell tower and Internet pathways to notify the public on a variety of emergency situations by sending text alerts to mobile phones.

During the wildfire outbreak in California in December, 2017, authorities sent emergency alerts to over 22 million cellphones.

During Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, emergency alerts informed millions of people on changes to the storms’ strengths and trajectories.

The efficacy of emergency alert systems is generally acknowledged yet not without scrutiny.

On Saturday, January 13, 2018, a false alert sent to cellphones across Hawaii sent hundreds of thousands of people into panic as they mistakenly received an alert that read “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” As it was, Hawaiians had already been on high emotional alert as a result of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea.

Officials stated that the alert was mistakenly sent as a result of human error, not the workings of hackers or a foreign government. Senator Brian Schats of Hawaii wrote on Twitter: “This system failed miserably and we need to start over”.

The strongest argument against emergency alert systems is their ability to create unwarranted panic in populations facing no threats. So, we pose the question to you- our readers- are emergency alert systems innovative advancements that can save lives? Are they invasive technological-overkill that generate false panic? Or do they fall somewhere in between? How can authorities leverage technological advancements to aid (and not diminish) strategic disaster risk reduction endeavors?

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