Text message about 'civil emergency' causes panic in Oregon

A vague alert told some Oregon residents on May 29, 2018 that there was a "Civil Emergency," but officials later clarified that it was connected to a water issue in Salem. KATU photo

A vague text message was sent to many cellphones in the state of Oregon Tuesday night saying there was a "civil emergency in this area until 11:28PM PDT. Prepare for ACTION OEM,1,OR."

Soon after, the Marion County Sheriff's Office informed the public in a tweet that there was nothing to worry about. The text was meant to notify residents about a "don't drink" the tap water advisory in Salem. Read more about that here.

The sheriff's office said people flooded 911 dispatchers with calls. It told people not to call 911 about the text message.

A follow-up text message clarified there was a "water emergency" in the Salem area. It provided a link to the city's website.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management told KATU that the alert was supposed to be about the water issue but there was a "technology issue" that dropped data that included a specific link to the city's website. The message worked on televisions but not on phones.

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

In a statement, OEM said the agency is working to figure out what happened.

"OEM understands that the default message caused concern among residents and is working to learn the issues to be corrected," it said.

Later, in a news release, OEM Director Andrew Phelps admitted the agency made a mistake and apologized. He said his agency is conducting a "forensic analysis" of what happen and to ensure that "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," he said.

The initial text message caused widespread panic. Social media lit up, and the phones in the KATU newsroom rang off the hook with people wondering what was going on. Many people expressed anger and were upset upon learning what happened.

Full statement from OEM Director Andrew Phelps:

Earlier this evening in support of our partners with Marion County and the City of Salem as they work to address a problem with their water system, we sent an emergency alert message on their behalf. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System inadvertently defaulted to a generic message and didn’t include the specific information we had meant to send. This was a failure on our part. We worked quickly to provide updates on social media and to manually override the default generic messaged to re-send the alert with the information specific to the water system issue.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts went to mobile devices in the area served by the impacted water systems, and the Emergency Alert System notifications went to television and radio broadcast partners serving the impacted area. The geographic reach of this system worked as expected.
OEM apologizes for the confusion and anxiety this incomplete message caused.
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.
For updates on the impacted water systems please visit www.cityofsalem.net and city of Salem and Marion county social media accounts.

The director also recorded a message on Facebook, explaining what happened:

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