On January 13th, 2018, the Hawaii Office of Emergency Management accidentally sent out an emergency alert warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack on the state. The alert was broadcast state-wide on Twitter, television, radio, and mobile text messaging. The message was as follows:


If you will, place yourselves in the shoes of the citizens across the state of Hawaii, many of which were pulled from their sleep by the alert. 38 minutes went by before the all-clear was given and the alert was rescinded. For almost an hour, a significant amount of Americans and foreign visitors believed that they were about to bear witness to nuclear devastation. The idea of going through such an event with my family gives me chill bumps as I write this. Stories of terror are coming in by the hour, such as that of a man who had to make the decision of driving to his wife at work, his two children at home, or his oldest daughter that had just been dropped off at the airport. He knew he wouldn’t make the drive to either location by the time the missile impacted.

Although the threat wasn’t real, the confusion and panic of many people certainly was. The common theme that seems to be occurring is that many residents simply weren’t prepared for an attack of this magnitude. I believe this critical error gives us a unique opportunity to better prepare ourselves for such an event, however unlikely it may be. In the military, the best mistakes are often made in training as this provides us an opportunity to learn from them before we participate in the real deal. We need to take this time to look at what worked, what didn’t, and how we can improve upon it for the future. Knowledge and preparedness are the key takeaways in order to survive, should such a horrifying event ever take place.

Understanding the threat

Photo courtesy of Army Public Health Center

The threat of a nuclear attack, regardless of the means of delivery, comes from a few key elements. The first is the blast itself, which releases an intense amount of light, heat, pressure, and radiation. At ground zero, the heat from the blast can vaporize anything it touches. Further out from the epicenter, common injuries and deaths are caused by burns, debris from the shock wave, and radiation exposure. Ground particles, debris, and water are sent upwards to form the immense mushroom cloud immediately following the blast.

As the radiation from the nuclear device mixes with the debris and soil, it creates a fine radioactive dust that begins to fall back to the ground. This radioactive fallout can be carried a very long distance with the wind and contaminate anything it touches. A victim may find themselves nowhere near the actual blast, but they could still be at risk of exposure depending on the weather patterns.

Immediate protective measures

Photo courtesy of Under Secretary of Defense

In the event that a warning is given, there are three key ways to reduce exposure from the radiation. These are time, distance, and shielding.

Time: If you can, avoid the amount of time that you spend in areas of known radiation. This may not always be possible, however, if you are injured or unable to access fallout reports and wind patterns.

Distance: Get as far away from the source of the radiation as you can. Radioactive fallout can settle on cars, buildings, roads, etc. If you are forced to shelter in an area that is contaminated, it is advised that you avoid exterior doors and walls of the building or shelter, as well as the roof.

Shielding: Different types of radiation can penetrate different types of materials. As a general rule, the thicker the material that creates a barrier, the better the shielding. A concrete or brick building provides better shielding than a soft-skinned metal car. Exposure can be reduced even further the more underground you can get.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Prepare ahead of time

I am a firm believer that preparedness can increase your chances of survival in ANY SITUATION. The best thing you can do beforehand is to have emergency supplies stored, preferably in various locations. If you commute to work, regardless of distance, it’s a good idea to keep a bag in the vehicle with some supplies so you can get home.

Immediate supplies should include at least:

  • a hand crank radio (cell phone reception is unlikely)
  • first aid kit
  • clean water
  • small tool kit
  • flashlight
  • high-calorie nutritional food (not Twinkies)
  • road maps (mark locations you may use for shelter ahead of time)
  • duct tape
  • gloves

At home and preferably in an alternate location, you should have:

  • previously listed supplies
  • one gallon of water per person per day for three days minimum
  • minimum of three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • batteries
  • emergency whistle
  • dust masks
  • sanitation products
  • tools to turn off utilities if needed
  • can openers
  • maps with locations of food, water, fuel, and shelters
  • charged cell phones with backup methods to charge such as solar
  • medications

Of course, this list is not exhaustive and there are plenty of resources you can use to prepare for such an event.

Have a family plan

The last thing you should have to worry about is where each member of your family is and how you’re going to get to them. This should already be planned well ahead of an emergency situation. Know where you’re going to meet up if you get separated and the routes you’ll take to get there.

Each member of your family should know how to get in touch with each other. If using radios, go ahead and make a list of primary and alternate frequencies that you’ll be using. Again, the communication system may be down for both cell phones and radios. Each member of the family should have a bag that is ready to go in the event that you need to leave your home.

The family plan should take into account the various ages of people in your family as well as dietary and medical needs. Preparing for an infant is much different than planning for yourself or your older children. You should always PRACTICE your plan well before an emergency happens. Make it a fun activity for the little ones in your family so that the plan sticks in their head. Remember the fire drills when you were in elementary school? The same concept applies here.


As I said before, the two most important things you can do to survive is to educate and prepare yourself. The more knowledge you give yourself, the less you’ll have to think about and learn when an event happens. Having a plan in place and the supplies to carry it out will increase your chances of survival in any emergency situation you encounter.

Although the error in Hawaii caused a considerable amount of chaos on the islands, it gave us the unique chance to learn from the mistake and how we can go about preparing for the real thing. The future is always uncertain, but prior planning and knowledge gives you a sense of purpose and calm that many others may not have in an event surrounded by fear.

Official resources for preparedness planning:


Featured photo courtesy of US Navy

Author- Rodney Pointer is a former Army Infantryman. After graduating from Airborne School, he was ruthlessly assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana to live out his days as a dirty leg. He served with the 2nd BN, 30th Infantry of the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. Following his deployment to Afghanistan, he received a Bachelor’s degree in Intelligence Operations. He currently works as a nuclear security contractor