It was just another beautiful sunny morning in paradise, when mobile phones woke up with the alert: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) issued the alert, interrupting radio and TV programming with a recorded message instructing people on what to do: “If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building (lie down on a floor). We’ll announce when the threat has ended. This is not a drill.”

Hawaiians take such alerts very seriously. If North Korea’s missiles can reach the U.S. west coast, then Hawaii, much nearer to North Korea, is a convenient target.

Hawaiians are familiar with emergency drills but when, “This is not a drill,” appears on screens, it can be difficult to maintain composure. And so some of them panicked, while others found shelter, gathered their loved ones, prayed, and waited.

Fortunately, the alert was an unfortunate mistake. But authorities took 18 minutes to appreciate that, and another 20 minutes to retract the alert. For 38 minutes, the worst imaginable catastrophe was about to unfold. Finally, the EMA issued its retraction: “There is no threat.”

Readers who attended school in the 1950s and 60s can recall the emergency drills. Two students would close the heavy asbestos curtains, which were white on the outside to deflect the flash from a nuclear bomb, and black on the inside. Everyone curled up beneath their desks and closed their eyes. Test alerts occasionally interrupted TV and radio programs, and people dug backyard bomb shelters.

Today, the Cold War nuclear threat seems a surreal distant memory, almost unbelievable, but it was real. As real then as it is now for Hawaiians. Here in Canada, in the land of sunny days, we can only imagine what that must be like. Canadian cities may not necessarily top the lists of enemy targets, however, in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on any major U.S. city, Canadians would experience an immediate economic shock: shortages of food and medical supplies. And, radioactive nuclear fallout doesn’t have to check through customs at the border. Are we prepared?

These days, we don’t have emergency preparedness drills or media broadcast test alerts or heavy asbestos curtains. It would never occur to us what we’d do if North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un pressed that button on his desk. But preparing for the worst is always a good idea.

Mississauga’s Emergency Management Office provides an excellent online emergency preparedness guide. It is a comprehensive list of potential emergencies including how to prepare in advance, and what to do during and after an emergency. It is highly readable and full of common sense that sometimes, under the stress of an actual emergency, may not be so common. It can be found here.

But how will we know when there is an impending emergency event such as a tornado, a hurricane like Hazel in 1954 or toxic airborne chemicals wafting out from a train derailment? These things do happen. Alain Normand of the Brampton Emergency Management Office explains the federal government has legislated, by April 2018, all cellular network providers must have a coordinated emergency alert system in place.

Until then, we depend on radio, TV, and the Internet. In the meantime, log onto any one of the several emergency preparedness sites.

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