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June 1, 2018

False civil emergency alert text panics Oregon’s Marion County

by John_A

KATU Photo

A vague but false civil emergency alert text sent to many residents of Marion County, Oregon, caused a significant panic on Tuesday evening, KATU reported.

The text message, sent at 8:29 p.m. PT on May 29 read:

Emergency Alert
Civil Emergency in this area until 11:28PM PDT
Prepare for Action OEM,1,OR

The message was supposed to notify residents of Salem, Oregon, the state’s capital city, about a tap water advisory. Instead, recipients of the whole county in which Salem is located were advised to “prepare” for some unqualified “Action.”

According to the Marion County Sheriff’s office, residents immediately started calling 911 to find out what was going on and what they should do about it.

Dispatchers at the 911 center told people not to call 911, that there was no emergency.

More than two hours after the disturbing text alert went out, the Marion County Sheriff’s office tweeted, “THERE IS NO CIVIL EMERGENCY. The message was intended to notify those affected by the water issue in Salem. PLEASE DO NOT CALL 911.”

A subsequent tweet by the City of Salem in response to a citizen’s query stated, “@OregonOEM sent this on our behalf. You can find out more information about the drinking water advisory on the City’s website: cityofsalem.net/Pages/drinking-water-advisory.aspx”

In a message to KATU, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM) explained a “technology issue” resulted in dropped data including the water advisory link in the message that went to phones. The message went out correctly to televisions but reverted to a default message on phones.

“The alert that was sent had to do with the water drink notice, sent on behalf of Marion County,” OEM spokesman Cory Grogan told KATU. “There were additional details that were supposed to go out, but for some reason, it went to the default message instead.”

The Salem tap water issue that was intended for the text alerts is a serious concern. The drinking water advisory explained that routine water testing of treated drinking water found low levels of cyanotoxins created by algal blooms in the city drinking water source, the Detroit Reservoir. Children under six, people with compromised immune systems, and other sensitive populations were advised not to drink tap water until otherwise advised.

Oregon OEM Director Andrew Phelps followed up later Tuesday evening with a statement that read in part:

“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.”

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