First Hawaii, then Japan and now New York.

Tsunami alert.jpg

"Danger Will Robinson! There is an alien amongst us!" - The more warnings we get the more commonplace they tend to become. We're all familiar with the boy who cried wolf and how after getting it wrong a few times, people stopped paying attention.

This past month Hawaii was thrown into chaos as a routine test of public warning systems actually went live to the general public as an actual alert. Hawaiians received a text message on their phones warning of an incoming ballistic missile. Plenty has been written and spoken about regarding  shortcomings and lack of checks and balances regarding how this came to be, so I'm not going to duplicate that here.

Within 48 hours of this a similar event happened in Japan. This time however, Japanese authorities were much quicker to countermand the alert. Japan is sensitive to the actions and provocations of North Korea due to their close proximity and previous experiences. On more than one occasion in recent years North Korea has launched missile tests that have overflown Japanese territory and several that have overflown portions of the Japanese archipelago.

But if bad things come in 'threes' then the US East Coast last week joined the "Boy who cried wolf' club. A tsunami alert buzzed phones across multiple states on Tuesday morning 6th February, but it was missing a critical piece of information: This is a test.

The message, issued by the National Weather Service as part of a monthly exercise, was passed along as a real warning by AccuWeather, a private weather company based in Pennsylvania.

Looking back a couple of years with these events in mind and it adds some clarity to something that was criticised here in Australia at the time but looks to be quite sensible in the years since.

After Black Saturday, Australia's most devastating series of bushfires in history, a revised categorisation and descriptions developed that harmonised the terminology and methods used to issue public fire danger warnings. The most severe of which was 'Catastrophic'.

Debate raged that 'catastrophic' was something that had already happened rather that a potential event. The grammar police debated whilst people were non fussed. However, it only took two very public warnings for days that Summer were rated as catastrophic for the grammar police to be proven right. 

Both warnings and both periods of intense heat came and went and nothing happened. Australia got off lightly without any severe incidents of fire. Consequently, the public warnings which carried such insistence and foreboding of catastrophe became somewhat of an empty threat. The public were now accustomed to dramatic language. The Victorian Government in it's wisdom rethought the strategy and re-labelled the 'catastrophic' rating to a 'code red'. Whilst to some this small change is trivial it is pivotal in the public's subconscious that it is a warning of the potential for disaster rather than of something that will happen.

When dealing with warnings, big and small, widespread or local, there's so much to consider regarding the desired effectiveness when warning and public response is required, that all agencies cannot afford too many more 'false-alarms' before the alert's effect is diluted or ignored.