‘Severe threat’ warning confuses community, unveils problems

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry and then-Linn County Undersheriff Jim Yon were busy Tuesday evening attending the Sweet Home High School senior awards ceremony when a blanket “severe threat alert” hit their cell phones.

It wasn’t just them – the same message popped up on cell phone screens throughout the county.

It contained the cryptic message: “Prepare for action.”

Neither Towry nor Yon knew anything more about it than anyone else.

They independently left the room and started contacting their people to find out what was going on. That was the first time the two public officials had actually met, they said. Yon, who was sworn in as sheriff three days later, said Linn County Sheriff’s Office dispatch was slammed with calls from the public.

The same thing occurred at the Sweet Home Police Department.

“Dispatch received over 120 calls during that time,” said Police Chief Jeff Lynn. “We had to bring another person off of the road to assist in handling the phone traffic. Fortunately, there were no priority calls that came during that time. We are definitely not set up to handle that volume of traffic.”

It turned out all of the fuss was about cytotoxins in the City of Salem’s water supply, contamination caused by an algae bloom in Detroit Reservoir east of Salem. News sources had been reporting on it throughout the day prior to the alert.

The City of Salem had posted a warning on its website not to drink the city’s water. Salem lifted the warning on drinking water on Saturday, June 2, after tests confirmed toxin levels collected Wednesday and Thursday were below health advisory levels and safe to drink.

Around 8:30 p.m. on May 29, Oregon Emergency Management sent out an alert to cell phones. The alert contained no mention of the drinking water restriction or information about the emergency. An emergency message did interrupt television and radio programming to deliver the warning about drinking water.

Towry said he had a few looks thrown his direction during the awards when the alert went out, but he didn’t know what was going on.

That underscored one of the difficulties associated with that system, a communication problem between OEM, the counties and cities.

Yon was immediately talking to his emergency manager, Towry said. “He was incredibly helpful.”

Were Sweet Home to issue a similar alert, “it would be more specific and ideally have some instructions,” Towry added. Sweet Home would initiate it by reaching out to the county.

The county uses a system called Linn-Benton ALERT, Yon said. It’s tested twice a year, and it was last used several years ago during flooding in the Scio area. The system calls Linn County land lines and plays a recorded message. It also sends the message via email to those who have signed up for it.

Cell phone users must sign up to receive alerts at the Linn County Sheriff’s Office website, linnsheriff.org. A link to Linn-Benton ALERT is at the bottom right corner of the page. The system requires the creation of an account with the site.

“If we have a major emergency, we do it ourselves, and we send it out,” Yon said.

OEM’s website apparently went down, and no one was answering calls there initially, making information scarce, Yon said. “It was just a big mess.”

Linn County officials were already aware of the algae bloom, Yon said. Linn County communities in the North Santiam Canyon served by Detroit Reservoir had filtration in place to handle the toxins and were unaffected.

“They didn’t give us any warning they were going to do this,” he said. Locally, the Sheriff’s Office would work with its communities to craft a message and get it out in a matter of minutes within a radius around the affected area.

Before Linn County will use its warning system, “it’s got to be a pretty major deal,” Yon said. “We don’t want people taking it for granted and just ignoring it. Clarity is very important. People, they want to know, ‘Am I in danger?’ or, ‘Am I safe? If I’m in danger, what do I do?’ When we send it out, we want to be in charge of that message. We want it clear, and concise so there’s no confusion.”

Simplicity is important, Yon said. “If it’s not, there’s going to be errors.”

As things turned out last week, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management was attempting to put out a message, Towry said, but it somehow defaulted to a generic message.

That is what Andrew Phelps, director of the OEM, said in a mea culpa statement issued last week.

“The integrated public alert and warning system inadvertently defaulted to a generic message and did not include specific information we had meant to send,” he said.

“This was a failure on our part. We worked quickly to provide updates on social media and to manually override the default generic message to resend the alert with the appropriate specific information on the water system issue.

“The wireless emergency alert went to mobile devices in the areas served by the impacted water system, and the emergency alert system notification went to television and radio broadcast partners serving the impacted area. The geographic reach of this system worked just as expected.

“I apologize for the confusion and the anxiety this incomplete message has caused people. Beginning this evening, we are conducting a forensic analysis of the steps we took to send this message and to ensure our procedures are written and practiced in a way that will prevent confusing messages from being sent from our system in the future. We understand the importance and the power of emergency alerts and take this responsibility very seriously. We need to get it right every time.”

The statement may be viewed in a video on OEM’s Facebook page.

Public Information Officer Paula Negele told The New Era that the message was sent to Marion, Polk and Linn counties at the request of Marion County.

Several communities in the North Santiam Canyon, downstream of Detroit Reservoir, are in Linn County.

The system does not differentiate among regions in the counties, which meant the entire county was notified. Negele said the system operates based on cell towers in the counties and cell phones outside of the affected counties may also receive the messages.

The alert system sends messages out through radio and television, Negele said. That functioned correctly. The message for the wireless alert system is limited to 90 characters, but OEM staff were not aware of that limitation and had composed a longer message for the wireless system.

She said the system, which is part of a Federal Emergency Manager Agency alert system had not and cannot be tested.

She referred The New Era to FEMA for an explanation, but an answer was not available by press time.