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We Interrupt This Program to Bring You…a False Alert

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020

At 7:23 on the morning of January 12th, 2020, the majority of Ontario, Canada’s 14 million residents received the following alert, “This is a Province of Ontario emergency bulletin which applies to people within ten (10) kilometres of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. An incident was reported at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation. People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time. Remain tuned to local media for further information and instructions.”

However, within two hours, a further communication was issued confirming that the first alert was sent in error. Subsequent reports confirmed that the false activation was the result of human error. This situation caused consternation among the population of Ontario, not least among the hundreds of thousands that live within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the Pickering Nuclear Station. While everyone was relieved that no emergency situation was actually occurring, anger was widespread that such an error could be made.

“This is an Emergency Action Notification directed by the president. Normal broadcasting will cease immediately.”

Unfortunately, North America has a long and storied history of false emergency alert activation. In fact, this history dates all the way back to the old Emergency Broadcast System’s (EBS) infamous miscue on the morning of February 20th, 1971. In this case, rather than the weekly Emergency Action Notification test, the NORAD telex operator inadvertently used the wrong tape. This alerted media all over the country to an announcement of an as-yet-unknown national emergency. The NORAD operator then compounded the issue with a series of cancellation attempts that didn’t include the required code word.

Eventually, the authenticated cancellation came through over half an hour after the original alert. While thirty minutes of confusion may cause some concern today, 1971 was a profoundly different time. Simply put, the fact that this false alert took place at the height of the Cold War caused genuine panic. The sole saving grace for EBS was that only about 20% of television and radio stations actually broadcast the message. Due to a combination of skepticism and a lack of clarity on the correct procedures, many dismissed the alert and continued with their normal programming. While this relative stroke of luck prevented more widespread panic, the combination of the false alert and the inconsistent application of the protocol led to a fundamental reevaluation of whether EBS was fit for purpose.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

While emergency notification has advanced since 1971, it seems that humans are still just as likely to make errors. This century alone, we’ve seen Connecticut residents erroneously told to evacuate the state in 2005, New York residents ordered to evacuate due to a tropical storm in 2013 and Guam residents given a “civil danger warning” in 2017. All of these events involved some form of human error and in each case, the lack of effective alert protocols resulted in needless public concern.


However, no public event caught the nation’s attention more than the Hawaii false missile alert on January 13th, 2018. In perhaps the most terrifying example of basic human error causing universal panic, thousands of Hawaiians received the following alert, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It’s fair to assume that an emergency alert is the type of communication that nobody wants to receive. Whether genuine or false, such alerts are an indication that something unpleasant is happening. However, this alert expressly mentioned missiles at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. This naturally confused and startled residents throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. And much like the scenario in 1971, various procedural issues resulted in an official cancellation not being sent for almost 40 minutes. While various other sources in Hawaii were able to quickly refute the missile alert, the long delay for an official cancellation could have resulted in more severe circumstances.

The Emergency Alert that Cried “Wolf”

While there are myriad issues that can arise from the obvious panic created by false alerts, the short-term carnage may pale in comparison with longer-term ramifications.

Terry Flynn, who teaches crisis communications at McMaster University, said there’s a danger that the type of error displayed at the Pickering Nuclear Station will erode public trust.

“When we have continuous problems in these systems, then we have a lack of trust and people begin to ignore them. So that’s the biggest fallout from this scenario.”

Additionally, the confusing language used in the alert could have the effect of creating apathy or conversely, extreme overreaction. If an emergency is taking place, the message needs to be clear, concise and resistant to misinterpretation. As Flynn notes of the vague mention of a nuclear emergency, “it’s like a doctor going to tell a patient that they have cancer, but they have the most treatable form of cancer and they have a 99 per cent survival rate. As soon as somebody hears “cancer,” they stop processing. I didn’t read anything beyond ‘an incident at a nuclear plant’ until later on. I stopped short.”

How to Protect Your Employees and Community from False Alerts

In the examples above, many commentators cited poor User Interface (UI) as a major factor to the various mistakes made. To this end, all CentrAlert technology includes Live Alert Protect™, a safety feature designed to prevent false alert activations.

When an operator initiates a live alert, the preview screen displays the message and produces a unique four-digit code. Before the operator can send the live alert, they must type in this code. The code (which is not a password) appears on the screen and the operator must simply enter it once. Emergency managers can choose to turn Live Alert Protect on or off.

To add an extra layer of clarity, Live Alert Protect does not require code entry for test alerts. This quick additional step ensures that the operator is completely aware that they are about to send a live alert. For more information about Live Alert Protect (or any CentrAlert product), please click here.



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