By Sophia Goodwin-Rice
Nobody wants to be awoken in the middle of the night by a loud alarm. Then again, nobody wants to be swept away by a tsunami, blown off by a tornado or demolished by a nuclear missile either. At the same time, nobody thinks that they’ll be the victim of the next disaster. It’s always the other people, until it isn’t.
I bring this up because last week, my hometown on the Oregon coast was woken up at 3:00 in the morning by phone calls and text alerts issuing a tsunami warning. An earthquake had occurred offshore in Alaska, sending residents of towns down the coast of North America into a state of alarm as the possibility of abnormally high water surges rippled closer.
In my hometown, news of tsunamis isn’t taken lightly. When an earthquake rocked Japan in 2011, many people who lived in low-level areas were forced to evacuate and miss school or work in case secondhand tsunamis reached us, all the way across the Pacific. It’s like training for the big one, the one that everyone is afraid of: it prepares people and gets them worried, but when it happens a lot with no serious consequences, the alarm could lose its value. Sure enough, the tsunami warning was cancelled some time later. When I woke up later that morning and scrolled through Facebook in alarm, trying to figure out what had happened, it was interesting to see how not many people shared my concern about the tsunami possibility. Most of the people who had been on the coast at the time were more annoyed by the fact that they had been woken up so unceremoniously when they were really in no danger at all.
In an entirely different scenario, Hawaii was thrown into a state of panic when, in early January, an accidental alert warning of a ballistic missile attack was spread across the state. In recent years, concern of an attack from North Korea has been growing, and for residents of Hawaii, it seemed like that day had finally come. When the alert was revealed as an error 38 minutes later, relief diffused throughout the islands, but so did a new concern. Why did this happen so easily? How are people supposed to know the difference between real danger and a false alarm, especially if the government takes so long to cancel the warning?
These situations are incredibly different in many respects, but at the same time, they share a common theme. What is the power that alarm systems have, either on a national or local level? One of the consequences deals with simple human nature: some sort of boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, where too many accidents are made and too many false alarms occur, and people start to become numb to the situation. Students at Willamette might see some parallels with our own emergency notification system; while it’s smart to undergo test runs to ensure the process is working, the sheer amount of drills might cause students to ignore an actual notification in an actual emergency.
If a person living in a tsunami danger zone starts to believe that all warnings are a false alarm, they could soon find themselves floating away in a flood of high water. If people in a place like Hawaii learn to not trust urgent government warnings, how will the necessary safety measures (if there are any against ballistic missiles) be carried out? While warning systems are crucial to mass survival in certain situations, they have the potential to lose a population’s trust and attention if they send too many false alarms.
The situation in Hawaii also opens up a whole slew of potential issues for the United States as a whole. While Hawaii is located closer to North Korea than any other US territory — and has been the victim of a foreign attack in the past — that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be the only area on alert. At the same time, what would a similar alarm administered to a the entire United States population look like? There could be mass panic, hysteria and maybe even a commander-in-chief who doesn’t wait to investigate before pushing a button in retaliation.
Overall, I believe that it’s incredibly important to have alarm systems, whether on a national or local level. Any child who has participated in a simple fire drill at school can tell you the importance of emergency preparedness. However, if we are going to take these alarms seriously, and act appropriately in the event of an actual emergency, we need to reform both our own responses and the systems themselves.