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North Dakota emergency alert protocol prevents false alarms

Issuing an emergency alert, either by state or county officials, requires more than simply pushing a button. At least two people must work together to enter the information and confirm the alert. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

JAMESTOWN, N.D.—Systems used at the county and state levels to issue emergency alerts require more steps and more human participation than a system used in Hawaii, according to North Dakota and Stutsman County emergency management officials.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency accidentally issued a false alert to the public Saturday, Jan. 13, warning that ballistic missiles were headed toward the state. The emergency alert was retracted 38 minutes later.

"We reviewed some of the things Hawaii had in their system," said Rick Robinson, planning specialist for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services. "They had a number of templates set up to activate alerts sooner. We have to type the information in."

The templates streamlined the process so one person could issue an alert in Hawaii.

"We have a two-person system," Robinson said. "One person is typing information into the system and the other is watching."

Robinson said the most common alert issued by the Department of Emergency Services is the Amber Alert for a missing and vulnerable child. Alerts for severe weather and safety information, including pandemic flu or other health hazards, can also be issued through the Integrated Public Alert Warning System.

The Department of Emergency Services used the alert protocols Thursday when it issued a Blue Alert for all of North Dakota.

"We had a number of people involved for this activation," Robinson said.

The incident occurred at about 11 a.m. The Bismarck Police Department requested the alert, which was reviewed by the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, before being issued at about 2 p.m.

The alert was the first of its kind issued in North Dakota.

"We became quickly aware shortly after it went out that few people knew what a Blue Alert was," Robinson said.

Bergquist reported people in the Jamestown area were confused by the alert. Law enforcement agencies and the Stutsman County Communications Center reported nearly 50 phone calls in about 11 minutes after the alert was issued.

Alerts issued through the IPAWS system can be statewide or for specific counties, Robinson said.

The Blue Alert was issued for all of North Dakota because the suspect could have fled anywhere in the state in the three hours from the incident until the alert was issued, he said.

The system requires six steps to issue any alert, including a test.

"We have a second person watch the process even for drills and tests," Robinson said.

Stutsman County uses its CodeRed system to issue any alerts, according to Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager.

CodeRED allows alerts to be issued for an area as small as one city block but requires at least two people and several minutes of work, Bergquist said.

"We have at least two people involved with the narrative," he said, referring to the text portion of the alert which explains the situation. "If that is not clear, it prompts calls from the public looking for clarification. That ties up the dispatch center."

Bergquist also said any locally generated alerts would be verified before being issued.

"If there is something that dire they (Stutsman County Communications Center staff) would call me," he said. "If I have a question, I'd either call the sheriff or the police chief to confirm."

Robinson said the false alert issued in Hawaii prompted agencies and vendors of emergency alert equipment and software to review their systems.

"Pretty much every viable vendor of this type of equipment is putting out information on how to avoid this," he said.

Bergquist said the entire process of issuing and retracting erroneous alerts should be reviewed.

"It took them 38 minutes to retract," he said, referring to the incident in Hawaii. "They need to pull it back faster than that."

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