Will False Alerts Give Us a False Sense of Security?

In one of Aesop’s fables, a bored shepherd boy decides to have some fun. He repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking wolves are attacking his flock.

Then a wolf actually does appear. This time when the boy cries for help, no one responds. The villagers assume it’s another one of his pranks. As a result, the wolf devours the sheep.

This story was written more than 2,500 years ago in Greek. Later in an English version, the wolf also eats the boy. That seems fitting, don’t you think?

The fable became so well known that the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition for “cry wolf.” It means to make false claims with the result that subsequent true claims are disbelieved.

Alaskans Get Tsunami Warning

I was reminded of this ancient tale when I noticed several false alerts going out to the public recently.

Last month, the National Tsunami Warning Center issued a routine communications test in Alaska.

The public interpreted it as a real tsunami warning for areas along the West Coast of North America and Hawaii.

A representative of the center said their phones were ringing off the hook for two hours after the alert went out.

‘If There Are Too Many False Alerts…’

An Alaska resident named Travis Neff said he heard the warning while driving to work.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I was poised waiting to hear that it was ‘just a test,’ but that never occurred.”

Five hours later, the National Weather Service released a statement saying no tsunami warnings had been issued for Alaska. “There is no tsunami threat,” the statement said.

The chief operating officer for Radio Free Palmer said what many other people were thinking. “The danger, of course, is the system is designed to alert people. If there are too many false alerts…”

Oregonians Advised to “Prepare for Action”

Even more recently, an alert went out to residents of Salem, Oregon. Many of them received it from the emergency alert systems on their cellphones.

It said, “Civil Emergency” and “Prepare for Action.” The message was also broadcast over local television stations.

In reality, the threat was toxic algae at a local water supply. But folks in Oregon’s capital city had no way of knowing that.

Officials wanted to communicate that area tap water might be unsafe for children and people with immune system problems. But that part of the alert was left off.

Supermarket Shelves Stripped Bare

Immediately people rushed to stores. At one supermarket in downtown Salem, all of the bottled water was purchased quickly. That left the shelves bare.

About a half-hour after the alert, a second alert was sent with more information. It provided a link to a municipal website.

Obviously the panicked people were paying attention. The site crashed under the load. One Salem resident named Cole Mahaffey stopped his exercise routine at a gym when he saw the alert.

“It almost made me not want to go outside,” he said. “I didn’t know if there was something going on in the area. Or if there was a shooter. You just had no way of knowing.”

Hackers Warn of Zombies in Florida

Of course, we all remember the alert that went out to Hawaii residents back in mid-January. Instead of pressing the “Test Missile Alert” button, an employee hit the “Missile Alert” button.

The message Hawaii residents saw on their cellphones was: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

And who can forget the recent zombie alert? Folks in Lake Worth, Florida received an alert on their cellphones about a power outage.

It included several references to zombie activity. Apparently someone hacked into the system and added those references as a joke. No word as to how many people believed it.

No Alert System Is Perfect

So what’s going on with all the false alerts lately?

More than 1,000 federal, state and local government agencies have the ability to issue emergency alerts through multiple federally managed networks. It is a patchwork system that usually works as intended. But when it doesn’t – well, that leads to chaos.

All these incidents have prompted calls for reform. Including better training for emergency workers in charge of sending alerts.

But, as a representative of the Alaska State Emergency Communications Committee said, “The system is imperfect. It involves humans and humans make mistakes. There will be other false alerts.”

The question is, how will people react when they receive real alerts?

Don’t Assume Someone Is Crying Wolf

The biggest problem I see with false alerts is that people will believe real alerts are mistakes. Or that someone is crying wolf.

They’ll become complacent. They’ll think that preparing for an emergency is not important.

And that’s one of the worst errors a person can make. A crisis could occur at any time and we need to be ready for it.

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