'Emergency alert' cellphone message was prompted by siren malfunction

The "civil emergency" alert that was inadvertently sent out to many SLO County residents.
The "civil emergency" alert that was inadvertently sent out to many SLO County residents.

That emergency alert you got on your cellphone Friday afternoon from the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services?

False alarm.

The digital alert sent to county residents about a civil emergency and to "prepare to take action" was a mix-up caused by an inaccurate response to a malfunctioning siren in the south San Luis Obispo area.

Ron Alsop, Office of Emergency Services manager, said Friday’s mishap may have started when PG&E workers installed an upgrade to an emergency warning siren near the San Luis Obispo Country Club in the morning, possibly causing the siren to go off later in the day.

When it did, residents flooded phone lines, calling local law enforcement and the county to find out what was going on.

The siren couldn’t be shut off remotely, so PG&E crews were sent out to physically cut the power, Alsop said.

Meanwhile, the Office of Emergency Services used its alert system to immediately notify law enforcement agencies of the false alarm.

If only it had been that simple.

“We thought sending out the message to them would be simple enough,” Alsop said.

“Unbeknownst to us, when we do that with our new digital emergency alert system, the new cellphone notification system also sent out (pre-scripted) cellphone alerts to residents.”

The new cellphone message system, which is carried by cellphone providers, is the same system that also carries statewide Amber Alerts issued by CHP and Presidential Alerts from the national government. It has been in operation in San Luis Obispo County for only about a year, Alsop said.

The county did not have a pre-scripted message to alert residents of the error and had to scramble to issue another alert about the mistake, while also notifying law enforcement and the 211 information service.

“The electronics were just much faster than we humans,” Alsop said.

He said that some residents with older phones may not have received the message. Only newer phones have the capability of receiving messages from the national cellphone notification system, depending on the carrier.

PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said Friday evening that an investigation was still underway on why the siren went off in the first place. He said the county’s other 130 emergency sirens were functioning properly.

Alsop said the best practice in a real emergency is to call 211 as to not flood local agency lines.

He said the county is taking measures to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

“The county certainly apologizes for this, although we are glad to know (the alerts go) out so quickly,” Alsop said. “But we apologize for the disruption of people’s days and any concern it caused.”