How Garfield County’s ‘shelter in place’ alert went to 7,800 people instead of 56
At 9:55 p.m. Sunday, thousands of Garfield County residents received an electronic message urging them to “shelter in place for police presence in the area.”
The alert included no further information, meaning folks as far apart as Silt, Rifle, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs were all left to wonder what was going on – and where.
Finally at 10:30 p.m. another emergency alert clarified: “Disregard shelter in place message,” and said the message was only valid for a specific area in Battlement Mesa.
The problem occurred when technicians at the Garfield County Emergency Communication Authority (GCECA) selected the wrong format for the alert.
The initial alert should have applied to only 56 people in Battlement Mesa, but instead went to 7,800 people who signed up for traffic alerts online, according to GCECA executive director Carl Stephens.
“We have a template for road closures, and it looks like they used that,” Stephens said.
Even if the technicians had limited the alert to the specific geographical region, protocol dictates that the message should have included a location of the incident, Stephens said.
To avoid situations like Sunday evening’s mistaken alert, Stephens said the staff will go through additional training on the system.
“We’re going to redo training with everybody,” Stephens said.
Sunday’s incident involved a standoff between Garfield County sheriff’s deputies and a man who threatened to shoot himself.
The man’s gun discharged during the hours-long standoff, and law enforcement wanted to alert the neighbors in Battlement to stay indoors for their safety, sheriff’s office spokesman Walt Stowe said Sunday.
The suspect in the standoff was successfully apprehended and is being held in the Garfield County Jail.
Such alerts are important, but “we don’t send them all county-wide, because that can create panic, or cause people to show up to see what’s going on. We try to send it just to the people involved,” Stephens said.
GCECA has more than 16,000 landline numbers listed in their system – data they get from telecommunications companies.
Not everyone has a landline, so the GCECA also has an online form at Garco911.com for people to sign up for crime alerts, road closures, fire alerts and air quality announcements.
The alerts can be sent by text message and email. Sometimes GCECA makes calls to landlines as well.
Those who sign up can enter addresses for work and home, so that messages to cell phones can be targeted to where a person is likely to be.
“We do send road closures, but we also help people know what’s going on in their community – if there’s a standoff or something like that,” Stephens said.
Member agencies, like fire departments and law enforcement, provide the information to communicate and request the alert as needed. The alert system has been used, with various updates, for about 10 years, Stephens said.
Ideally, “you’re not going to get every alert if it doesn’t affect you,” Stephens said.
The Sunday night mistake was the first time a location-specific law enforcement alert went out so broadly, according to Stephens.
“We don’t send out a whole lot of those, luckily because of the community we live in, but when we have, there hasn’t been an issue like this one.”
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