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Pushing the Button ... to Issue a Warning

People are hesitant to warn.

It is only a movie, but I think it exemplifies much about the challenges of issuing a warning. Over the weekend I watched The Wave, a Norwegian film about the potential for a huge landslide to create a tsunami on an inland fjord in Norway.

Remembering that it is just a movie, they still captured the challenges of having a warning system and then employing it to save lives. The uncertainty that comes with potential disasters. Millions of dollars have been expended, with state-of-the-art technologies to monitor a mountain and its movement.

At what point do you “push the button” to evacuate people up to 80M high in the middle of the night?

The other aspect of the warning environment is that the final decision rests with the boss. The wrong decision will certainly be career-ending — if nothing actually happens.

This real-life story epitomizes the challenge. Hurricane Rita was supposed to hit Texas, so an evacuation was ordered. The hurricane then slipped further east and didn’t strike the Dallas area. However, evacuation orders were issued before the storm switched paths and this was one of the results: “Bus carrying elderly evacuees burns; 24 dead.”

Those people on the bus, in the end, did not need to be moved.

I spent a significant amount of time during the movie, saying to the warning center staff, “Push the button!” I had the advantage of knowing the theme of the movie and the ultimate outcome.

One other item from the movie. The signals that the instrumentation was giving the warning center were not totally consistent with what they expected. This is another aspect of warning that can be called “the fog of disaster” that clouds our ability to make timely and lifesaving decisions.

While writing this, I thought about another movie, Dante’s Peak, which has a similar conundrum for those charged with issuing a warning.

May we all be blessed by not having to make those kinds of decisions in our professional lives, but we should be ready to do so.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.