Panic ensued when a message was sent to every phone, television and radio in Hawaii at 8:07 a.m. Jan. 13.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Few people knew what to do.
Thirty-eight minutes passed before another alert was issued, notifying the public it was a false alarm.
An employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had mistaken a drill for a real threat, and he sent to the public a message that wasn’t true.
Sgt. Shena Kohler, deputy director of Rock County Emergency Management, said the mistake raised questions for emergency management officials nationwide.
“How do we alert the public? How simple is that system for alerting the public? Those are things that we have to look at locally, at the state and nationally,” Kohler said.
Brian Satula, administrator of Wisconsin Emergency Management, said he was not surprised Hawaii was testing alerts for a nuclear attack given the state’s proximity to North Korea, which has been rattling its nuclear saber.
But he was surprised only one person was tending the emergency alert system, and he was surprised the message made its way to the public.
“Based on what happened in Hawaii, I can tell you, it isn’t going to happen that way (in Wisconsin),” Satula said.
The process of alerting
Satula occupies a tidy office inside Wisconsin’s Department of Military Affairs building in Madison. A UW-Madison poster hangs on a white wall, and he sips from a red Badgers mug.
“We had procedures in place long before the event (in Hawaii) happened,” Satula said. “To have a one-button push to send the alert, that wouldn’t happen here. There are several steps that go into the process.”
Gov. Scott Walker appointed Satula as administrator of the state’s emergency management in 2011, the same year IPAWS—Integrated Public Alert and Warning System—rolled out to Wisconsin.
The integrated warning system was birthed in response to Hurricane Katrina, and it’s the state’s primary emergency notification system.
The system can send alerts simultaneously to cellphones, television networks, radio stations, weather radios and local and national agencies.
At all times, two officers—a duty officer and a senior duty officer—are on call to receive emergency alerts from local emergency management officials or state or national agencies.
How the officers issue and respond to an alert would depend on the emergency.
If the emergency is severe enough or if local emergency management isn’t able to send its own notification, the state would issue an alert through IPAWS.
Depending on the emergency, the state would determine which platforms and agencies to include in the alert.
Through electronic mapping, the state would pick which areas to alert.
“We can target a county,” Satula said. “We set a boundary for where (the alert) is going because we never know who’s passing through the area. So if the disaster is in that area, even people that don’t live in the state of Wisconsin will get the message.”
In Wisconsin, each alert message is written in the moment to reflect the specific emergency. The state does not use template alerts in the integrated warning system.
Lori Getter, the state’s emergency management crisis communications director, said once information is gathered about an emergency, the duty officers decide the best response. If an IPAWS alert is needed, she said, the message can be typed quickly.
If the situation is dire, the duty officers could turn for direction to emergency management regional directors; to Satula; to the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar; or to the governor.
“All of that can be done fairly quickly when decisions need to be made for relief,” Getter said.
IPAWS shows several confirmation messages while an alert is being written. Satula said the system asks if the duty officers are certain they want to send the alert. similar to deleting a file on a computer.
The verification happens a “couple of times before you actually send the alert out,” Satula said. The duty officers “all know the system, and they know the software. They’re able to do it relatively quick.”
In the event of a nuclear attack, the U.S. Department of Defense would notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would then alert the state, and the duty officers would issue an alert through IPAWS.
IPAWS is used only for the most severe emergencies. In most cases, the state leaves local emergency officials in charge of notifying the public.
“All disasters are local,” Satula said. “Our job here is to prepare everybody for that bad day, support them when they need it and to coordinate activities that they’re asking for. The locals are still in command of the incidents.”
The Rock County Sheriff’s Office uses a software called Nixle to send emergency alerts. Nixle sends emergency alerts through text messages, emails, voice messages and social media but only to those who have subscribed. Like the state, Rock County officials write Nixle alerts in the moment and include pertinent information specific to the emergency.
But during an emergency situation, alerts aren’t the be all and end all, Kohler said.
“People need instruction just as much as they need an alert,” she said.
‘Be prepared to sustain yourself’
Barren fallout shelters sit vacant below buildings throughout Janesville.
Underneath Arrow Park, an old fallout shelter has become commercial storage.
A faded fallout shelter sign is still affixed to the exterior of the vacant Monterey Hotel in downtown Janesville.
Kohler said thinking has changed since 1961, when fallout shelters were first commissioned by the now defunct Office of Civil Defense and when school children practiced how to “duck and cover” under their desks.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union posed the greatest nuclear threat. Now, states such as Hawaii practice for attacks from North Korea, which claims to have missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons as far as Chicago.
Kohler said there’s no need to maintain fallout shelters when people can mostly avoid radiation from a nuclear attack in their own homes.
“The response to a nuclear threat would be the same concept—getting low, getting inside,” Kohler said. “To send a population to a shelter in the midst of an attack wouldn’t be appropriate when they can shelter in place.”
Jim Cobb is a disaster readiness consultant and author in Delavan. He runs a website called Survival Weekly, and he has published books entitled “Prepper’s Long-Term Survival Guide” and “Prepper’s Home Defense.”
He said people should be prepared for emergencies, including a nuclear attack.
“One of the first things you want to do ahead of time: Make sure you have food and water set aside,” Cobb said. “It just needs to be shelf-stable. For water, a minimum of one gallon per person per day. The whole premise is, you’re going to have to meet all of your own needs for a certain period of time.”
State officials echoed Cobb, and Getter said people should “absolutely” be prepared for an emergency in their homes and in their vehicles.
“It could be anything,” Getter said. “Example: There could be a truck carrying chemicals, and it becomes a big chemical release, and people are told to stay inside. Do you have food? Do you have flashlights? Do you have potable water?”
Getter said an emergency could be a blizzard or a power outage. No matter the disaster, she said, it’s important to have supplies ready and an evacuation procedure coordinated.
During a nuclear attack, Cobb said, the preparation would be less complex than one might think.
“I have a basement,” Cobb said. “That’s all you really need. You don’t need a special shelter or anything. When it comes to radiation, mass is your friend.”
While Kohler said emergency management officers don’t prepare specifically for a nuclear attack, the preparations for any emergency are universal.
“We focus on everything, and that’s our responsibility,” Kohler said. “There are things we can do as a community to address preparing for any disaster, whatever it may be. You do the best you can. We prepare for as much (as we can), and we have to be adaptable.”
Getter said Ready Wisconsin has an emergency kit suggestion on its website, readywisconsin.wi.gov, and those suggestions apply to the most common emergencies facing Wisconsinites. Some of the items listed are two rolls of duct tape, scissors, toilet supplies, medications, a battery operated radio and towels.
“Think of items that you really would need,” Getter said. “That you won’t be able to run to the store for. It’s a good idea to just have those items just in case. Have them in a plastic container so you have it handy.”
As for communicating emergencies to the public, Satula is confident in IPAWS. Training occurs frequently, and officers send test messages to FEMA several times a month.
If an alert goes out to cellphones, television and radio, as one did in Hawaii on Jan. 13, officials say the alert should be taken seriously.