The Hawaii False Alarm Debacle: Lessons for Leaders

Last month, an employee with a history of poor performance mistook a drill for a real life emergency and erroneously sent an incoming ballistic missile alert to millions of terrified Hawaiians. A preliminary FCC report and an internal investigation by the State of Hawaii point to confusion and poor communication as causes of the massive blunder. Sadly, the circumstances outlined in these reports will seem familiar to many government employees. The good news is, there are lessons from this incident that leaders in any government organization can learn from:

  1. There’s drilling employees — and then there’s setting them up

The debacle of January 13th started when a State Warning Point (SWP) supervisor on the night shift decided to initiate an unplanned drill just as the day shift employees were arriving. According to the internal investigation report, the supervisor left the premises to place the phone call that activated the simulation. It was clearly intended to catch the staff off guard.

I don’t know this supervisor, or the norms of the SWP, but this feels a lot like a “gotcha” scenario, orchestrated at a particularly difficult time (i.e. a shift change). We all know managers like this – the ones who like to “test” employees at the point where they are most likely to fail. It’s about feeding one’s ego much more than it’s about developing people. The job of a manager is to ensure employees are fully prepared and equipped to execute, not to catch them off guard.

  1. Know the stakes

The report reveals that the employee in question was a habitual poor performer, a known fact within the SWP. We’ve all seen managers employ the strategy of sticking a poor performer in an out-of-the-way corner of the organization. Whether this was the case here, we don’t yet know, but the question remains: why was someone with a history of poor performance, who had confused drills with real life events on two prior occasions, still in a role where he could send a dire alert to the entire population of Hawaii?

One explanation is that it’s easy to forget the stakes. When you’re in a life and death field — such as law enforcement, security, or in this case, emergency management – it’s easy to get lulled into complacency by the daily grind. It’s hard to keep perspective on the critical nature of your work day in, day out. But leaders in these types of organizations can’t succumb to that. It’s imperative to keep the stakes top of mind when making day to day decisions. If you have a poor performer, you simply shouldn’t put him in a position with that level of reach. That person should be kept far away from a system that sends life and death messages to millions of people. Furthermore, no one person – no matter how competent – should be able to communicate such crucial information to millions of people alone. If the stakes had been properly factored in, there would have been a verification mechanism to prevent such a mistake.

Bottom line: if this protocol was important enough to run regular drills on, it was surely important enough to have thought through these risks ahead of time.

  1. The devil is in the details

The internal report found that the protocols for the drills were insufficiently detailed, meaning the execution of the drill varied from staff to staff. When holes are left in procedures, people must fill in the blanks for themselves. The result is inconsistency and confusion. When documenting processes and procedures, we often focus on identifying the sequence of steps to be performed, without doing the difficult work of establishing things like: who specifically performs the action? What is the definition of “complete?” How is the process handed off to the next person or group? We tend to think these details are obvious to everyone, but having an explicit discussion and clearly documenting these definitions is crucial – more crucial than making a spiffy flow chart.

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Steph Drahozal

I totally agree that there is a difference in ensuring employees are fully prepared and equipped to execute and catching them off guard. Especially when it comes to terrifying millions of citizens that a ballistic missile was incoming! That isn’t something you try to catch people off guard about.

Amy DeWolf

Really appreciate this blog post…it’s always good to be evaluating events like this and determining how you, as a leader, would handle the situation or what you would have done differently.

Danielle Poindexter

Had no idea the person responsible had made a similar mistake twice before – that’s insane! I wonder if this person fully understood the chaos a mishap like this could cause. Employees should be briefed on the magnitude of mistakes like these. Thanks for the article