How incidents like the Hawaii false missile alert can be avoided

Everbridge's Meg Lovell explains the technology behind emergency response network operation, and why systems utilize a combination of automated and human controls.

Inside the tech emergency response process

Communication is important--especially in the midst of a crisis. TechRepublic spoke with Everbridge's Meg Lovell to walk through the timeline of events if an emergency occurs, and how would government and private organizations react. Below is a transcript of the interview.

Lovell: Basically an event would surface to a global operations center like the one I'm sitting in today if I had a number of methodologies. I've got some media feeds behind me and some aggregated feeds that come in and the first step really is to assess the situation. From there you should have a programatized way to approach how you go about these particular communications. You can't just have a "Okay, missile attack, here's what we do. Hurricane, here's what we do," because there's a whole range of incidents that could happen in between that you can't predict where that active shooter is going to be, so you have to make sure your plans are very flexible. You should have plans in place that are flexible enough, yet concise enough that you know exactly the steps you're going to take.

When it comes specifically to the communication portion, I always encourage that our customers have some sort of templitic communication because there's three things that I always want our customers to put out in their communication. What's happening, what I want you to do, and when I'll notify you again. When we're talking about something short like a government WIA notification which is broadcast over the cell towers, we don't always have like when to expect the next notification, but they should at least have those first few things in there. What we want you to do. The government actually did put out a notification. It told you what was happening, and what they wanted to do next.

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But where the feelings happen in that particular situation was they didn't have a plan in place for pressing the wrong button. We're really looking at a combination of things that they should have built safeguards in for. You really should have had separate live and separate test mode because in a test mode, that's when you can actually get the confidence to press that potential nuclear incoming button in the system without causing fear and panic an entire state. Also building in the access controls, making it part of a process. You have to go through a whole stepped process.

Going back to the Hawaii situation, it seems that the controls there were lacking in terms of they could have done more practice, and they could have had a better, stronger test system. Because while they did cancel that alert, so they stopped the broadcasts, stopped emanating from the cell phone towers, stopped broadcasting on television screen within a matter of six minutes, but where they didn't have something templated or planned was how to put out a retraction.

Estimates range between 35 and 40 minutes, which is a very long time to leave people in limbo wondering "Is there really a weapon about to land on my city, my town, my state?" That's where a lot of unnecessary fear and panic was left in the public. That's where all companies and all government agencies need to make sure that they have a way to push out a message, but they also have a way to push out an update to keep people informed of the situation, even if it is a retraction.

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