Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Waves and Wars: Thoughts on Early Warning Systems

Earlier this month, the State of Hawaii issued a warning to its citizens that a missile attack was imminent, telling them to seek shelter immediately.  Twenty seconds after sirens sounded and cell phone tweeted the warning, it was determined to be a false alarm, but the corrective notice didn’t make it out to most until 38 minutes later.  Panic ensued and now the State (and the Federal Government) are working to determine how something like this could happen and prevent such a false alarm in the future.  (See New York Times article on the issue here, also the source of the photo.)


Public warnings are a critical part of protecting people from the potential impacts of any disaster, whether natural or man-made.  And Hawaii is no stranger to disasters. Or attacks.  And so it’s important that the warning system be effective, timely and most of all, accurate.  Unfortunately, the timely and effective warning last week fell short in the accuracy department.  That’s being changed, they say.

The launch of a missile begins a period of preparation wherein the public can seek shelter. While it may only be a few minutes long, time does provide some options for those in danger.  A more common event in Hawaii (and indeed many coastal regions of the world) is a tsunami warning. Again, an earthquake triggers a warning period and allows the public to prepare. Fortunately, not all warnings result in a tsunami inundating the coast; but people will respond.  When it comes to something like a tsunami (or a missile launch, apparently) no amount of “crying wolf” will dampen public response. And that’s good.

But what about natural events that don’t have a warning period associated with it.  Take, for example, the frequent earthquakes that plague many parts of the world.  Will we ever be able to accurately predict them and warn the populations that might be affected by them?  Does an earthquake (or series of quakes in a short period of time) mean “the big one” is coming?

“It’s true, too, that earthquakes in one place can trigger more far away, over thousands of miles. It may even be true that the worldwide coincidence of major quakes is more than coincidence, that there are global patterns that bring disaster into sync.  But the bigger truth is that scientists still don’t know enough about the fundamental physics of earthquakes to predict with precision and certainty when a seismic event will happen. Earthquakes aren’t entirely random, but for the purpose of day-to-day threat assessment, they may as well be.”  (Source here.)

Plans for public safety and for mitigating the impact of diasters of all types must include the realization that early warning may not be possible for some events, and that simply warning and sheltering vulnerable populations isn’t enough. Governments, schools, businesses and homeowners must do all possible to locate and build cities and settlements in such a way that they are safe places to be, even when a disaster is immediately impacting them.   

When there is no warning, moving to a safer place is not an option.  But making all places safer (or choosing not to build them in the first place) is an option we can choose.