Always allow for human error, with two-key authentication

The residents of Hawaii got a shock last Saturday morning when an emergency notification was sent out by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency by SMS to their mobile phones alerting them to an incoming ballistic missile. Hawaii has been on a state of alert for months now because of threats from North Korea to use ballistic missiles against US territories, so the threat was taken very seriously. This was not a test.

But it was a mistake, believed to have been caused by human error when an employee at the Hawaii EMA pressed the send button by mistake on the way out from his shift. This was apparently due to a procedure that is carried out at the end of the shift to make sure that the system is working. I guess you could say that they did prove that the system is definitely operational!

The alert was also broadcast by television and radio stations. The mistake was corrected 18 minutes later by e-mail, but not until 38 minutes later by SMS. By then the damage had already been done in terms of the stress caused to islanders and the disruption to people’s lives.

It goes without saying that this should not have happened. When a notification system is this critical, and involves notifying many thousands of people, there must be a failsafe procedure in operation to ensure that such a mistake cannot be made by just one person.

Crises Control, along with a number of other major emergency mass notification vendors, has just such a failsafe on its platform. This allows users to set the system up so that no message or incident alert can be sent out by only one person. This two-key authentication process ensures that two separate keyholders must authorise the alert before it is sent out. The Hawaii EMA s believed to have now added just such a two-step process to their system.

The Hawaii alert system is also used for tsunami and landslides warning, which also pose a significant threat to the island. The episode does highlight just how important and widespread such systems are now across the globe. They are now used by a range of organisations, across both the state and commercial sectors, targeting from hundreds of thousands tens of people down to just a handful.

Getting the right system in place, with the right features, is an important business, as the Hawaii EMA has just found out. To help with procuring and setting up such a system, we have just produced a free guide to Getting Started with an Incident Notification Solution. You can download a copy here.

Rickie Sehgal