On the morning of January, 13, 2018, residents and visitors to the Hawaiian Islands received an emergency alert on their cell phones reading, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” Thirty-eight minutes later, local officials announced that the alert was a false alarm.
Ensuing news coverage reported panic, chaos and confusion following the emergency alert, however research led the University of Georgia found that most Hawaiians didn’t panic. Instead, they sought information that could verify their risk and help them decide what to do next.
“People are mostly prosocial in disasters,” said study author Dr. Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor in the Institute for Disaster Management at University of Georgia College of Public Health. “They’re not doing this every-person-for-themselves type of behavior. That’s just a myth we see reproduced in pop culture.”
Dr. DeYoung and her co-authors looked to this unprecedented event to better understand how people react in the face of a potentially catastrophic event. They asked island residents to respond to questions about their perceived level of risk, what actions they took after seeing the warning, and whether the false alarm affected their trust in future warnings.
Most respondents, they found, didn’t seek immediate shelter, but instead spent time looking for more information about the incoming attack. This behavior is known among disaster researchers as “social milling.”
“It’s getting a sense of what other people are doing,” said Dr. DeYoung. “Social milling means, let’s see what’s going on, observing the scene but also checking in with others.”
When people are milling, she said, they are more likely to find the information they need to make the best decision about what to do. Respondents said they looked to major news outlets and social media to corroborate the alert message.
In the days following the false alarm, respondents reported feeling a mix of emotions. Among feelings of trauma and anger, some respondents also said they didn’t trust their local government to handle future emergencies.
Dr. DeYoung says the way to overcome doubt about future emergencies is to send out official warning messages across more platforms than the wireless emergency alert system.
“People wanted multiple cues to validate the warning,” she said, “so in order to increase belief and trust in the warning, it should go across multiple channels.”