Hawaii False Alarm: The story that keeps on giving

Right after the Hawaii false nuclear alarm, I posted about how the user interface seemed to contribute to the error. At the time, sources were reporting it as a “dropdown” menu. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, but in the last few weeks it’s become clear that truth is stranger than fiction. Here is a run-down of the news on the story (spoiler, every step is a human factors-related issue):

  • Hawaii nuclear attack alarms are sounded, also sending alerts to cell phones across the state
  • Alarm is noted as false and the state struggles to get that message out to the panicked public
  • Error is blamed on a confusing drop-down interface: “From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.”
  • The actual interface is found and shown – rather than a drop-down menu it’s just closely clustered links on a 1990s-era website-looking interface that say “DRILL-PACOM(CDW)-STATE ONLY” and “PACOM(CDW)-STATE ONLY”
  • It comes to light that part of the reason the wrong alert stood for 38 minutes was because the Governor didn’t remember his twitter login and password
  • Latest news: the employee who sounded the alarm says it wasn’t an error, he heard this was “not a drill” and acted accordingly to trigger the real alarm

The now-fired employee has spoken up, saying he was sure of his actions and “did what I was trained to do.” When asked what he’d do differently, he said “nothing,” because everything he saw and heard at the time made him think this was not a drill. His firing is clearly an attempt by Hawaii to get rid of a ‘bad apple.’ Problem solved?

It seems like a good time for my favorite reminder from Sidney Dekker’s book, “The Field Guide to Human Error Investigations” (abridged):

To protect safe systems from the vagaries of human behavior, recommendations typically propose to:

    • Tighten procedures and close regulatory gaps. This reduces the bandwidth in which people operate. It leaves less room for error.
    • Introduce more technology to monitor or replace human work. If machines do the work, then humans can no longer make errors doing it. And if machines monitor human work, they ca
    snuff out any erratic human behavior.
    • Make sure that defective practitioners (the bad apples) do not contribute to system breakdown again. Put them on “administrative leave”; demote them to a lower status; educate or pressure them to behave better next time; instill some fear in them and their peers by taking them to court or reprimanding them.

In this view of human error, investigations can safely conclude with the label “human error”—by whatever name (for example: ignoring a warning light, violating a procedure). Such a conclusion and its implications supposedly get to the causes of system failure.

AN ILLUSION OF PROGRESS ON SAFETY
The shortcomings of the bad apple theory are severe and deep. Progress on safety based on this view is often a short-lived illusion. For example, focusing on individual failures does not take away the underlying problem. Removing “defective” practitioners (throwing out the bad apples) fails to remove the potential for the errors they made.

…[T]rying to change your people by setting examples, or changing the make-up of your operational workforce by removing bad apples, has little long-term effect if the basic conditions that people work under are left unamended.

A ‘bad apple’ is often just a scapegoat that makes people feel better by giving a focus for blame. Real improvements and safety happen by improving the system, not by getting rid of employees who were forced to work within a problematic system.