Emergency Alert Fatigue

The last month has been a bit… exciting… here on the island. With lava flows and explosive eruptions spawned by our neighborhood volcano.

Another Eruption Message
Yet another eruption status message arrives on my phone.
Along with the ongoing eruption in the lower east rift zone, there are the events at the summit caldera of Kilauea. The withdrawal of magma from the summit storage chamber has resulted in the ongoing collapse of the Haelmaʻumaʻu crater area. Magnitude five point something earthquakes are now a daily occurrence as this collapse continues.

The result? Over the last month we have been bombarded by far too many messages on eruption conditions, vog conditions, earthquakes, and non-tsunami alerts. It is wearing a little thin. And frankly I am ignoring much of it, when I probably should not.

Emergency fatigue has set in.

The most useful method of getting emergency condition information on the island is to subscribe to the county civil defense department’s alert service. This sends the alert messages to your phone in either text or email messages.

Normally this service is quite useful. Along with notices on earthquakes and tsunami, the service details road closures and power outages. On a small island it is easy for any incident to impact your plans. Timely notification of these events has proven quite useful.

Over the last seven weeks these messages have become all too frequent. Several updates on the eruption each day. Updates for the summit collapse eruptions and the resulting ash plumes, sulfur dioxide levels and vog conditions, regular notes from authorities on evacuations and services for evacuees. In addition to the usual road closures, traffic accidents, and brush-fires that mark island life.

If your cell phone plan has a limit for number of text messages, you are probably now paying for the service.

Worse than the texts and emails are the full on emergency and AMBER alerts… The FCC emergency alert system on modern phones is more than a little annoying. The phone emits a piercing siren that can wake anyone from a deep sleep with no regard for the silence or do not disturb settings. These just happen too often on this island… I have simply shut the feature off on my phone.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates throwing lava hundreds of feet in the air on June 4th, 2018
I understand the county government’s need to keep us all informed. But much of this information is getting highly repetitive with the ongoing eruption. Yes, fissure 8 is still emitting a high flow of lava. That has not changed for a few weeks now, do I need to know that thrice a day?

Maybe you can notify us if something important changes?

There is a balance here, one I am not sure has a correct answer. Yes, we need to be informed of events. In the local press and on social media I have noted many complaints that the county has not been good at informing folks of events as this eruption has progressed. On the other side we have the risk of complacency, of emergency alert fatigue. We have received so many messages that we might ignore the one that is truly important.

Kilauea Ash Cloud 27May2018
A column of steam and volcanic ash rise above Halemaʻumaʻu on May 27, 2018. Photo credit the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory
Frankly the updates on local Facebook groups are far more timely and informative. We saw the first video of lava emerging in the neighborhoods on Facebook. Folks in the eruption zone have live-streamed constant updates on the eruption.

Each day we get photo albums from the helicopter overflights and highlights of the USGS updates. The community contributed information pool is vastly better than the official channels for filling in the blanks.

Yes there is junk there too, spawned by fear and people with some agenda to push. But the moderated groups like Hawaii Tracker are pure gold when following events on the island.

The community has also assembled and maintained live maps of the ongoing eruption with fissure location, flow progress, damaged roads, evacuation zones, police checkpoints, everything those living in the area really need to know.

I will rely on the county civil defense text messages for alerts and Facebook for in-depth information, at least I signed up for those and control the volume and silence mode.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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