How one man, making one wrong click at shift handover, triggered statewide panic
You’ve all seen the images of panicked state citizens running around like headless chickens, kids being stuffed into storm drains to be out of the blast, the embarrassed Governor, the even more embarrassed head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (H-EMA), all somberly promising to find out what happened to cause the false alarm, and to prevent human error from ever occurring in future. But what really happened?
As more facts came in, the half thought out nature of the hastily cobbled together alert system became scarily apparent. H-EMA had permission to send out urgent alerts over the emergency broadcast channels, but did not have an equally urgent mechanism to broadcast the all-clear, or a “false alarm” followup message. One employee of H-EMA at any given time was responsible for monitoring incoming alerts and deciding when to send out “the big one” – there was no second set of eyes, or review of his actions. Every shift change, a test alert would be selected and “sent,” but the live and test alerts were on the same drop-down menu, furthermore, a standard “Are You Sure” popup was the only thing standing between a mis-click and total panic!! My illustration above is probably much clearer than the real-life software used at H-EMA.
Once upon a time, emergency buttons were hardware, protected from accidental activation by a plexiglass cover, and large/lurid enough that other staff would see you reaching for it. However, in our new and improved technological age, it’s all on a computer screen, and having the test and real alerts in the same drop-down menu is asking for a mis-click. Also, having a stereotype “Are you sure?” popup is asking for the average moron to click right through and realize his mistake afterwards. (And it appears that H-EMA employed at least one average moron!)
Come on now – how many of us have shut down or rebooted something important by mistake because we thought the “Are you sure?” was a response to something different, like “Save configuration” or “Send coffee and donuts.”
That’s just plain bad software design by people who didn’t think about the consequences of making the “Nuke Alert” button exactly like any other.
If I were the software designer, or even the H-EMA director, I’d demand something like this:
Missile Alert button pops up a panel with a Big Red [Live alert NOW] button, an amber [This is a drill] button, and a green [Send the All Clear] button. If you hit the “Live alert NOW” button, you get a very lurid confirmation panel with something like “LIVE MISSILE ALERT WILL BE SENT – ARE YOU SURE??” This confirmation panel should be ENTIRELY different from the “just a drill” confirmation, and not at all like any standard confirmation panel. The confirmation popup should occupy most of the screen, also, the big red “YES” and the Green “CANCEL” buttons should be large enough and well separated enough to avoid any possible wrong selection.
Yes, folks, when it comes to emergency alert buttons, it is time to “lift and separate ’em” so there is no mistake what you are touching!!