Imagine sitting at the breakfast table on a Saturday morning. Your oldest child is already off to their job bagging groceries, and you’re pouring the first cup of coffee for the day.
Suddenly, an alarm rings on your phone with the following message.
"BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
It was 8:07 in the morning when residents of Hawaii received that message. Those without cellphones saw a television broadcast warning them to seek immediate shelter.
Not all were home during the alert. Many were at college data-data-classes, work, or on their way to an event. Some ran into nearby buildings and college data-data-classrooms. Those on roads pulled over anywhere they could, desperately attempting to reach safety.
For 38 agonizing minutes, residents panicked as they attempted to contact their loved ones. Those with loved ones on the mainland sent terrified messages, explaining the situation.
At 8:45 a.m., residents received a second alert: it had been a false alarm.
As news reports of this incident rolled in, people all over the country began to ask themselves the same question.
What would I do if I received an emergency alert?
What Is An Emergency Alert?
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national public warning system used to notify residents about a potential threat.
- Who: The EAS is jointly coordinated by FEMA, the FCC, and the National Weather Service.
- When: The federal organizations in charge issue an alert as soon as they are aware of a potential threat.
- Where: Only residents in affected areas should see or receive these alerts.
- How: The EAS sends messages through radio, television, and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).
- What: The EAS is triggered by natural and manmade disasters.
Families on the islands of Hawaii were relieved to learn that the event had been a false alarm. Though many were angry at the unnecessary fear, many realized it sparked a conversation about preparedness. However, that wasn’t the only emergency alert in 2018.
Ten days after the false alarm, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the Gulf of Alaska. The massive quake prompted tsunami warnings for locations along the Pacific Coast. Officials cancelled alerts four hours, later when the risk for a tsunami was over.
So, what do you do when the threat of danger is immediate?
What to Do When You Receive an Emergency Alert
These days, most of us receive emergency alerts through the Wireless Emergency Alert system, on our cell phones. We see Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts, and think nothing more of them.
But one day, you may wake up to a blaring alarm warning you to seek immediate shelter.
The messages transmitted through the WEA must be less than 90 characters. Not a lot of information can fit into 90 characters, so you may head to the FEMA website for more guidance. In fact, government websites provide little information on what to do after you receive an emergency alert.
The exact steps to take in the event of an alert can vary greatly, based on the type of emergency you may experience. Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing the greatest risks in your area and preparing for them.
Whether you live in hurricane country or along a major fault, take some time to learn about your geographical location and the risks it may pose.
Familiarize yourself with the safety protocols for potential events in your area. Determine the safest locations for your family to reconvene after a disaster, and practice traveling to those locations using several different routes.
Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing the greatest risks in your area and preparing for them.
What if I Don’t Get an Alert?
After the earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska, residents received tsunami warnings based on their geographical location through the WEA. But many residents did not receive the tsunami alert due to some issues with the alert system.
Officials realized there were some gaps in the Emergency Alert System when some internet and radio broadcasts did not make it through.
Though technology continues to improve, there is always a chance that you will experience an emergency without any warning.
That is why it is so important to prepare for catastrophic events, before there is even a risk.
We want your family to stay safe. There is good news. You can prepare for any disaster with a few simple actions, whether you receive an alert or not.
Every geographical location comes with its own perils. Regardless of where you live, stay aware of potential dangers in your area. If you don’t have a smart phone, sign up to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts via text message.
Invest in a backup power source, like a hand crank radio. This will allow you to receive radio transmissions in the event of an emergency. It can also charge your phones and serve as a light source in times of need.
Your neighbors can be an important resource in the event of an emergency. Connect with your community to start an emergency preparedness group, and have regular drills. Working together can lessen the impact of a catastrophic event, and can serve as a reminder that you are not alone.
Have a Plan.
Many families in Hawaii found themselves imagining the worst as they attempted to contact their loved ones. Create an emergency communication plan. Provide every family member with roles in the event of an emergency. Even the youngest members of your family can learn about the importance of preparation.
Read our guide on how to discuss natural disasters with your family.
The most important thing you can do is prepare. Build or buy an emergency kit for your home and each vehicle you own. Practice emergency drills with your family and community. Create an alternative communication plan in the event of cellular failure.
The Emergency Alert System is always improving, providing early alerts to those who need them the most. With a plan in place, your family will be ready for any potential disasters headed your way.