Ominous 'civil emergency' text alert a (mostly) false alarm

It was supposed to be just a Salem water advisory

BEND, Ore. - (Update: Oregon OEM calls it 'technology issue' they're working to address)

Thousands of cellphones across the state of Oregon sounded an ominous alarm Tuesday night, with a very worrisome message to “prepare for action” due to a “civil emergency in this area.”

But for all but a minority of recipients of the alert, sent out around 8:30 p.m., it was a total false alarm.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management and Oregon State Police confirmed that Marion County was trying to let all Salem-area residents know about an advisory for some residents to stop using tap water after tests found low levels of toxic algae. It was aimed primarily at children, infants and other vulnerable people, but only in that area.

However, none of those details made it into the text that went to many well beyond Marion County, labeled on various phones as a “severe threat alert” or “emergency alert.” 

“Civil Emergency in this area until 11:28 PM PDT,” it read. “Prepare for Action OEM,1,OR.”

Many recipients turned to Facebook and flooded the OEM and other sites with questions, and the answers were prompting emotions that went well beyond relief.

“That’s a real good way to scare a bunch of people,” one wrote.

“What kind of idiots are you?” another said.

“This will be an interesting story for the next week to see who gets listed on the board of shame next to the missile alerter,” another added.

Here's what the Oregon OEM soon had to say about the incident:

"At approximately 8:50 p.m., a wireless emergency alert (WEA) was issued by Oregon's Office of Emergency Management. The alert, which was requested by the City of Salem to alert local residents about a drinking water advisory, defaulted to  "civil emergency" verbiage. This was a technology issue which OEM is currently working to learn how and why it happened. Subsequently, a revised/corrected alert was sent to provide appropriate information.  

"The information that the public needs to know was posted to the City of Salem website and is offered below. 

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

OEM Director Andrew Phelps later posted a video to Facebook with some more information about what occurred:

"From the City of Salem Website:
Drinking Water Advisory
May 29, 2018

Do Not Drink the Tap Water

Applies to City of Salem, City of TurnerSuburban East Salem Water District and Orchard Heights Water Association

The advisory:  Low levels of cylindrospermopsin and microcystin (cyanotoxins) have been found in treated drining water. These toxins are created by algal blooms in the source of City of Salem drinking water, Detroit Resovoir.

To ensure the greatest quality of drinking water, City of Salem voluntarily samples for such toxins during algal events. Samples were collected on May 23, 2018 and May 25, 2018. Results confirmed the presence of cyanotoxins in the drinking water at levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Cyanotoxins National Drinking Water Health Advisories.

Levels of toxins have been detected in the City of Salem water system that supplies water to City of Salem, City of Turner, Suburban East Salem Water District and Orchard Heights Water Association.

Children under the age of six, people with compromised immune systems, people receiving dialysis treatment, people with pre-existing liver conditions, pets, pregnant women or nursing mothers, or other sensitive populations should follow this advisory. At this time people not on this list may continue to drink the water unless additional messaging is received. Please visity for the most up-to-date information.

Bottled water should be used for drinking, making infant formula, making ice and preparing food and beverages."

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