Preparing for a False Alarm

It was April, 2002. I had joined my family for a spring vacation at the beach. My mom and one of my sisters invested in a time share several years earlier, and I’d made the drive back to the South Carolina coast. It was the second or third night; several hours after we’d gone to bed, when we heard an alarm go off. Over the speakers in each room, which my father didn’t like, and insisted that they were listening devices, a recording of a man’s voice announced that there was an emergency in the complex, and that everyone needed to vacate their rooms.

We reluctantly left, but it was not easy. We didn’t smell smoke, and couldn’t figure out what kind of emergency would make the condominium staff force their residents out onto the parking lots in the middle of the night. The biggest concern for us was for my mom. Just months earlier she had begun using a walker to help get around, as she dealt with growing issues involving use and strength of her legs, a side effect, we were told, of the medicines she had been on for years following a kidney transplant.

As we exited outside the third floor hallway, we discovered that they had shut down the elevators. Our only escape was to descend down three flights of stairs, slowed down by those coming out from the second floor. But for my mom, it was even more of a challenge, trying to maneuver her walker down the hallway, not knowing the nature of the emergency and how much of a danger we may be in. And then having to go down one step at a time, worried all the while that people behind her might become impatient and possibly start pushing.

By the time we got to the bottom, the alarm stopped and the recorded message was telling us that the emergency was over; we could return to our rooms. It was now time to figure out how to get her back up three flights of stairs; as young and perfectly healthy people stood hovered around the elevators, not giving way to the elderly and the obvious disabled people who had no other choice. It was a night that set the tone for the rest of the week, as the pain in my mom’s legs grew more intense after the trauma of being forced to make her way downstairs and back up.

The next day, what my sisters and I suspected turned out to be correct; there was no real emergency. It was a false alarm! All of that physical and mental stress on my parents, for a false alarm! Yeah, I was really ticked off.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT DRILL.”  — Cell phone message sent to residents and visitors in the Hawaiian islands at 8:07 a.m. January 13, 2018

This weekend we learned of the still head scratching news that a false alarm went out in Hawaii warning of a missile attack; and specifically warning that “This is not a drill.”

It took almost 40 minutes before the all-clear was given and people were told it was a false alarm. While some of the news stories this weekend focused on the panic this “false alarm” created, I was surprised by the reporting of how many people never got, saw, or heard the message, and continued on with their lives. And moreover, the number of people who received the message, but didn’t know what to do next.

How do you prepare for a missile attack? What do you do when you’re not at home — perhaps with access to your bomb shelter or basement, if you have one — when the alarm goes off?

What about your kids? Your spouse? Your elderly parents?

You see, it’s easy to practice a drill at home; tell your kids where to go if there’s a hurricane. Stop by the grocery store to prepare for a winter storm. Talk through where to meet up after a fire.

But what if you had only 20 minutes to seek protection from an incoming missile — from wherever you are when the alert goes out? What would be your plan? How would you communicate with your loved ones? How would you try to get back together? Or would you?

I don’t have the answers for any of these questions. But shouldn’t we be asking them?

There are many more questions being asked today than there were just a year, a month, or even a week ago. Because we saw first hand, in real time, through video and social media communication, how poorly prepared we truly are as the real threat from a neighboring country puts everything into perspective.

How prepared are you and your family for any type of emergency? Fire? Tornado? Hurricane? Terrorists?

What happens the next time when it’s not a false alarm?

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