'Volusia County boil water notice. Residents are advised to boil water before consumption,' warned the notice. It was a mistake.
(TNS) - When news of the Hawaii missile alert mistake broke last week, it immediately brought a sense of déja vu to local emergency management officials.
A similar — though not as alarming — incident took place here last September in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Volusia County officials were on a countywide conference call with officials from various cities when everyone's cell phones began sounding off with an "extreme alert."
"Volusia County boil water notice. Residents are advised to boil water before consumption," warned the notice. It was a mistake.
The warning, issued in error by a state employee, created hours of confusion as officials tried to figure out what was going on and notify people there was no need to boil their water.
"Thank God it wasn't an inbound missile alert like the mistake made in Hawaii," Jim Judge, Volusia County's emergency management director, said last week.
However, there is this: The same system that mistakenly sent out the boil water notice for Volusia County also is responsible for sending out notices of imminent missile attacks.
That boil water notice was the first thing that popped into Judge's mind when he heard about the missile alert. The boil water notice didn't send local residents scrambling for their safe rooms, but it was a local example of how mistakes in the nation's emergency warning systems can have a huge impact within seconds.
"I think there are some pretty good fail-safes but there's no such thing as perfect," said Jonathan Lord, newly appointed public safety emergency manager for Flagler County. "Every system has human interaction. Mistakes happen."
The Hawaii incident also prompted questions about who's responsible for monitoring for incoming missiles, and what would happen if there really was a missile alert locally. It has been decades since Floridians practiced missile drills.
The Hawaii missile alert and Volusia County boil water notice were both broadcast through statewide systems used for warning residents of impending danger.
In Florida, state officials said the boil water notice "was a simple human error," said Judge. "Somebody pressed the wrong button." That's exactly what Hawaii officials said caused the missile alert mistake.
A second alert stating there was no boil water notice in Volusia County was issued about an hour later. In Hawaii, it took 38 minutes for the state to retract the missile warning.
The best way to make sure mistakes don't happen, Lord said, "is to practice often, to make sure that people who are responsible for those systems understand how to activate them, or test them in an appropriate fashion.
The investigation into what happened in Hawaii and how it could be prevented in the future is ongoing.
The organization responsible for watching for incoming missiles or aircraft is well known to families everywhere who track the arrival of Santa Claus every year — NORAD.
"We're watching the skies over North America, in terms of any air or missile threat," said Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command, which includes the United States and Canada.
"We have various ways and means via NORAD to detect both air and missile threats," said Kucharek, a civilian based at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Continental U.S. NORAD region is divided into two sectors, west and east. Sector activities are coordinated by a combined air operations center, based at Tyndall Air Force Base, just west of Panama City, Florida.
"We have land-based sensors, space-based sensors and airborne sensors," said Kucharek. "It's all integrated, not just for North America, but it's integrated worldwide."
Information generated by the tiered system can be quickly shared and threats can be identified, he said.
If there's "a significant event," anything from a missile threat to an air threat, a lot of agencies would be represented on a national events conference call, said Kucharek. Participants, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would "span the gamut of the U.S. government."
"The notification process for each state is owned by each state and FEMA," he said. "They're seeing what we're seeing and listening in on these assessments, whenever there's a national event conference that's convened."
Lord, who has worked in state emergency management, said the state is in "constant communication" with the nation's military and defense coordinating officers for FEMA.
The alert from the state would be issued across multiple systems, including the same text system that sends tornado warnings, amber alerts and the boil water notice last fall. The systems include the national Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, known as IPAWs, and geographic-based wireless emergency alerts.
Any cell phone capable of receiving a warning that is within range of a cell phone tower in the area, whether they subscribe to a particular service or not, would receive the alert. The systems also can send presidential alerts for national emergencies, the only alert that can't be turned off on a cell phone.
State officials also are able to interrupt all media sources, such as television and radio, to put the word out, Judge said. "Just like in Hawaii, they were alerted by every means possible."
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