Software Blamed for False Evacuation Alert in Minnesota

State emergency management officials are pointing fingers at a software issue for a false “evacuate now” alert last week. Ten minutes after the false alarm, residents were assured that no evacuation was being ordered.

by Paul Walsh, Star Tribune / February 10, 2020
This evacuation order went out by mistake Wednesday to many counties in Minnesota. Itasca County Sheriff's Office

(TNS) — State emergency management officials are blaming a software issue for cellphones mistakenly receiving an “Evacuate Now” order in many counties stretching from east-central to northern Minnesota.

The message went out at 7:52 a.m. Wednesday and said, “Emergency Alert in this area until 8:06AM CST Evacuate Now HSEM, St. P” before cutting off.

Recipients were told “within 10 minutes” that there was no evacuation being ordered, said Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety (DPS).

The message, part of a weekly test and not intended to be sent to the public by the state’s Safety Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, was received on cellphones in parts of Aitkin, Carlton, Cass, Itasca, Pine and St. Louis counties.

Also, people with mobile devices who were near these counties also may have received the test message, Doug Neville, another DPS spokesman, said Thursday. That’s because the message was sent over cell towers that send signals that go beyond strict county boundaries.

At least one person far from the acknowledged area reported getting the alert while streaming a local television station over YouTube.TV.

Rob Martinson, of Chanhassen, said he heard screeching and beeping sounds and then saw these words scrolling across the top of his screen:

“A civil authority has issued AN IMMEDIATE EVACUATION NOTICE for the following counties or areas: Aitkin, MN, at 7:51 AM on FEB 5, 2020 Effective until 8:06 AM. Message from KARE.”

Then came an automated voice that repeated the words as they looped back around. It was 30 seconds from the alert starting before the voice explained it was merely a weekly test.

As for why the message slipped out, “the preliminary review of the incident points to a software issue,” Neville said. “The message was properly marked as an internal test, but the software did not recognize the message as a test.”

Homeland Security and Emergency Management is working with the vendor to ensure the system is working properly, he said. Additionally, the agency us implementing steps to “triple-check [that] the software test settings running in the background are working properly.”

©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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