America’s attention was suddenly shifted toward Hawaii on Saturday, as alerts were sent out warning of a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.” The text message claimed that it was not a drill. Since then, authorities have claimed that this was a mistake — not the actions of a foreign government or “hackers,” simply human error. The false alarm rattled many nerves, and others seemed to brush it off and figured it was fake anyway.

It was a sort of perfect storm — not only did this incident tell everyone that there was an incoming missile, but such a fate isn’t too ridiculous for many to believe. Escalating tensions with North Korea make incoming ballistic missiles a common topic on everyone’s minds, and many were already on edge, especially in the one of America’s closest locations to North Korea.

Many universities have similar alert systems. For example, the University of South Florida has an automated system that alerts via text message whenever something potentially life threatening or harmful is happening. If there is a robbery or a shooting anywhere near the school, text alerts are sent out. It seems to be an effective means of alert, given how often students and teachers alike are on their phones.

The government has a more complicated system, but that can work based on a regional or national basis. It’s called the “Integrated Public Alert & Warning System” (IPAWS). In the event of an emergency, people generally aren’t going to have the time to coordinate a mass text-message across a certain location, build and distribute video across television networks, and work with radio stations to push out information. Instead, IPAWS works to automatically distribute essential information across multiple platforms as quickly as possible. The recent events in Hawaii, while an obvious misstep and/or error, does attest to the fact that quick distribution actually works quite well. In the 38 minutes before it was shut down, a huge population had been “warned” of the alleged incoming threat.

But it was this quick-draw method of alert that also allowed for the mishap on Saturday. With any system that, by definition, cannot operate with many redundancies, you vastly increase the risk of human error. Our nuclear weapons program is one such system that is consistently debated for this very reason — the system has to be fast, but the faster it is, the more redundancies and safety mechanisms you lose.

IPAWS is not only exclusive to threats from foreign nations. It can apply to natural disasters, accidents or spills, and a long list of other types of emergencies. They can range from local to a town or county, but can also stretch to the state or multiple state level.

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Check out FEMA’s in-depth explanation on how it works here:

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Featured images courtesy of Wikipedia (bottom), FEMA (right); compiled and edited by the author.