Alert system must provide citizens reliability, clarity

Sean C Morgan

Like probably just about everyone in Sweet Home who had a cellphone on Tuesday, May 29, I was flummoxed when I heard that screeching noise coming off my from the device.

And, like probably just about everybody else, I was poised, ready to … wait, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

Instead, I scratched my head, wondering whether I should grab my guns, stand in a doorway, hide in a cellar, or run as fast as I could in some undetermined direction to escape the severe threat my phone just informed me was occurring.

Except it didn’t say what was occurring.

So, instead of fleeing, I wandered into the other room to ask my wife if she’d gotten any strange messages. She had. The daughter said she had too.

The wife’s TV show was interrupted, and I caught the tail end of a message, something about toxins in the water in Salem’s water supply, but it listed Linn County among other places being warned. A buddy in Silverton texted me asking me if I knew what this cryptic threat might be.


And we weren’t alone.

Not the city manager, not the Public Works director, not the police chief, not the fire chief, not the new sheriff. No one around here apparently knew anything about a severe threat or emergency or anything of the sort – mainly because there wasn’t an emergency.

Our local officials did some checking around, and I found stories that had been posted two and three hours earlier on Portland and Salem media sites about an algae bloom in Detroit Lake. The wife found Salem’s warning not to drink the water.


Eventually we figured out that the big threat was really a case of the runs if you’d drunk too much tap water in communities that get their drinking water from Detroit Reservoir.

Apparently, there was nothing wrong here in Sweet Home or Linn County or most places. It was just algae-related toxins in Salem’s water, a big deal for those folks, to be sure, but not much of a concern unless we Sweet Homers work there or visit friends – which I did Saturday, and the coffee from bottled water was just fine.

So that raises the question a lot of us are asking: Why, oh, why, did they warn us of this way down here in Sweet Home? Because we might go to Salem and drink from a fountain? My buddies in Salem were well aware, and we talked all about it along with the absurd run on bottled water in local stores.

This alert was some seriously messed-up stuff – The alert didn’t tell us anything. No matter where we lived, it was useless.

The boss, Scott Swanson, and I had to jump around various public information sites before he was finally able to locate and post some concrete information on what was going on – after rewriting what he called almost incoherent bureaucratese. Anyone in a real panic would have had almost zero chance of comprehending what was going on.

We don’t have to imagine the following scenario because we all experienced it:

You live in Sweet Home, 50 miles from Salem. You get a severe threat alert and you’re supposed to do what? No other communication. You don’t know if it’s a North Korean nuke, the Big One finally getting ready to blow in the Cascadia subduction earthquake zone, terrorists flying a plane into the state capitol, Elvis sighted walking Main Street in Lebanon or The Orange Guy from the White House visiting Sweet Home.

A tornado? Mt. Jefferson about to explode? A 9,000-foot tsunami washing in to wipe out everything 90 miles inland? A crack in Green Peter Dam? Gunfight at OK Corral?

As we later found out, it was pretty irrelavant to us. We didn’t need to do anything at all. Just go on about our lives.

When all this happened, most of us probably knew little about the system that sent us that alert; but I did know – and I know for sure I’m not alone – it wasn’t working right.

The director of the agency responsible, Oregon Emergency Management, apologized and explained it was all a malfunction of some kind leading to the complete lack of information.

So, it was a mistake, a technical glitch. It has to be fixed.

This isn’t an area where mistakes can be allowed to happen. It must work consistently. It must convey clear information every time about what the threat is – so we can ignore it if we live in an unaffected area or take whatever is the appropriate action if we live in the affected area. And it should somehow be tested like other emergency alert systems.

The targeting of the notice should be better adjusted. It just doesn’t make sense to notify South Santiam communities about a North Santiam problem. Over-alerting runs a serious risk of people ignoring important and relevant emergency messages in the future, sort of like crying wolf.

Unfortunately, the system won’t allow that kind of precision.

The candor of our state emergency leaders was appreciated, but what we really want in an emergency message is reliability and clarity.

The silver lining here is that a real problem has been exposed prior to a real emergency, like a sitting president or dead rock star visiting our town.