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Little chance of false alert in Oregon, officials say

Oregon emergency alerts are written at the time of specific events and must be authenticated by a supervisor before being sent.

By Claire Withycombe

Published on January 16, 2018 5:02PM

Oregon Emergency Management officials say because of the way statewide alerts are produced, it’s unlikely the agency could send out a false alert such as the erroneous notification of a missile attack last weekend in Hawaii.

Claire Withycombe/Capital Bureau

Oregon Emergency Management officials say because of the way statewide alerts are produced, it’s unlikely the agency could send out a false alert such as the erroneous notification of a missile attack last weekend in Hawaii.

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Capital Bureau

SALEM — An incident such as Hawaii’s false missile alert Saturday is unlikely to happen in Oregon, according to a state emergency communications official.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent an erroneous text message alert through the cell phone network on Saturday morning stating that a ballistic missile threat was inbound toward that state. It took 38 minutes for the agency to correct it.

Hawaii’s emergency management system allows a choice of messages from a set of prewritten templates. In Saturday’s case, the employee intended to send a “test” message that contained different language, but selected and confirmed the wrong prewritten template.

That’s different from Oregon, where statewide text alerts are written anew and have to get supervisor approval, said Chris Murray, chair of the State Emergency Communications Committee.

“It’s not a situation where one person’s gonna push the wrong button,” Murray said.

Emergency communications with the public exist at the local, state and federal level.

Hawaii also has a more integrated system than Oregon, and fewer checks and balances. The island state was criticized by the Federal Communications Commission for having insufficient safeguards after Saturday’s incident.

Additionally, in Oregon, most emergency responses are handled at the local level, Murray said.

Even if the “Big One” — an approximately 8.0 magnitude Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could strike western Washington, Oregon and British Columbia — hits, the environmental situation and information about shelters and other resources in the aftermath are likely to vary across the state.

Cities and counties can issue emergency alerts according to emergency communication plans developed locally. The National Weather Service can send out statewide alerts.

Statewide emergency messages are created by the Oregon Emergency Response System (OERS), which is a 24-hour dispatch center in Salem, according to Oregon’s 2017 emergency communications plan, which is maintained, along with other state plans, by the FCC.

Either the Oregon State Police or the Oregon Office of Emergency Management typically write statewide alerts.

For example, AMBER Alerts, which are sent when a child is suspected to have been abducted, are written by OSP. Those alerts are distributed via text message, radio and television.

If there’s a national emergency, such as a nuclear attack, the president or other federal authorities can use the national Emergency Alert System to send out what’s called an Emergency Alert Notification, which is authenticated by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA.

The notification means the president could address the American public over radio and television airwaves within 10 minutes.

Recent statements from President Donald J. Trump regarding North Korea — including a tweet last week that his nuclear button was “much bigger and more powerful” than that of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un — have renewed public concern about a possible nuclear threat to the United States, decades after the end of the Cold War, when fallout shelters were commonplace.

Several buildings in Salem still have the Fallout Shelter designation on external walls, including North Salem High School.

Since 9/11, the office of emergency management has prioritized readiness for an act of non-nuclear terrorism over nuclear events, said Paula Negele, a spokeswoman for the agency. That said, the agency recommend Oregonians plan ahead for a wide range of contingencies.

“Creating awareness about the importance of having (an) emergency kit and plan is an important part of our mission,” Negele wrote in an email Tuesday. “We recommend being ready for at least two weeks rather than the traditional 72-hour model in case there were even a major disaster like Cascadia or a nuclear attack.”

The Oregon Health Authority and the federal Department of Homeland Security maintain information online about what to do if there’s an act of “radiological terrorism.” And Oregonians can typically sign up for mobile alerts through the county emergency management office, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.


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