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False alarm: Glitch triggers call-to-action warning

Marion County

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — At 8:36 p.m. on Tuesday an emergency notice lit up the phones and television sets of Oregon residents in multiple counties, alerting them about a “civil emergency” in their area until nearly 11:30 p.m.

The alert told people to prepare for action. No other information was provided. 

Immediately, confused people from multiple counties, including Marion, Benton, Deschutes and Clackamas County, vented their worries and concerns on social media. 

It turns out the alert wasn’t exactly accurate. A technical glitch from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management’s alert system triggered the emergency alert across multiple counties on Tuesday night. The alert was intended for Marion County residents and it was supposed to include a warning about not drinking Salem tap water. That glitch left out the part about water. 

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management released a statement on the alert. The office also told KOIN 6 News that the alert system doesn’t have a test process, contrary to television and radio.

The alert, which was requested by the City of Salem to alert local residents about a drinking water advisory, defaulted to  “civil emergency” verbiage. This was a technology issue which OEM is currently working to learn how and why it happened. Subsequently, a revised/corrected alert was sent to provide appropriate information.  

Oregon OEM Director Andrew Phelps also released a statement saying “this was a failure on our part.”

Earlier this evening in support of our partners with Marion County and the City of Salem as they work to address a problem with their water system, we sent an emergency alert message on their behalf. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System inadvertently defaulted to a generic message and didn’t include the specific information we had meant to send. This was a failure on our part. We worked quickly to provide updates on social media and to manually override the default generic messaged to re-send the alert with the information specific to the water system issue.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts went to mobile devices in the area served by the impacted water systems, and the Emergency Alert System notifications went to television and radio broadcast partners serving the impacted area. The geographic reach of this system worked as expected.
OEM apologizes for the confusion and anxiety this incomplete message caused.
Beginning this evening, we are conducting a forensic analysis of the steps we took to send the message and ensure our procedures are written and practiced in a way that will prevent a confusing message from being sent from our system in the future.
We understand the importance of emergency alerts and need to get it right, every time.
For updates on the impacted water systems please visit www.cityofsalem.net and city of Salem and Marion county social media accounts.

A water emergency alert for the Salem Area was sent out after another, vague emergency alert preceeded it on May 29, 2018. (Courtesy)

A second alert was sent out later to residents near Salem clarifying the exact emergency.

County dispatches were overwhelmed with 9-1-1 calls.

In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Gov. Kate Brown’s press secretary Bryan Hockaday said:

“The Governor has been briefed and is receiving regular updates and at her direction, the Office of Emergency Management has already initiated an assessment of public alert protocols and procedures and will report back to the Governor’s Office on actions that will be taken to avoid confusion and ensure public safety in the future. Additionally, the Oregon Health Authority and local health officials are continuing to closely monitor water quality conditions and will keep Detroit Lake water users updated as new information becomes available.”

KOIN 6 News will update this story

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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