The computer system to blame for the Billings emergency message incident

BILLINGS – A computer system failure was the reason an emergency alert message scheduled to be broadcast within a one-block radius in Billings Heights was sent to everyone in the Yellowstone County Monday morning, said KC Williams, director of Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services.

Law enforcement officers contacted the county’s Department of Emergency Services to send a message directing residents in a one-block area to shelter in place due to a hostage situation. producing on the 300 block of Stillwater Lane.

Instead of the one-block area, the entire county got the message, “Law enforcement problem. Please shelter in place until further notice.” It was sent to county cell phones, TVs and radios at 8:15 a.m.

“Obviously this creates a lot of confusion. Obviously this caused some people not to know exactly what to do and, quite honestly, that was a problem. I guess the good news is that it’s better to warn too many people than two few, but unfortunately this spread throughout the county and it was a problem with the system that we just identified today “Williams said.

Q2 News / Mitch Lagge

Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services Director KC Williams explains the Federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to MTN News on Monday afternoon.

The message was sent through the Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS). The system is operated by FEMA and allows local authorities to access it and broadcast emergency information to specific communities via television, cell phones and radio.

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An information graphic showing how the Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System operated by the federal government works to disseminate emergency information.

Williams said the IPAWS is typically used by the National Weather Service to send warnings to people in a specific geographic area. This is also the same system used to broadcast AMBER Alerts. The person creating the alert can draw a shape on the map and have the alert only go to people inside the shape.

Williams said the problem was that he was able to draw the shape when creating the alert, but the computer program didn’t recognize the shape and sent the alert to the entire county.

“We drew a geo-targeted map in the alert system with the full anticipation that only those included in the alert zone would be notified of the shelter in place. We learned today that while we can circle and geotagging through the federal IPAWS system, it didn’t recognize the map,” Williams said.

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Q2 News / Mitch Lagge

The orange circle indicates where the IPAWS emergency alert should have been sent. The alert was sent to all of Yellowstone County, rather than the planned one-block radius of a hostage situation in Billings Heights.

Williams said the IPAWS system allows the National Weather Service to draw the map and send the message to the desired area, but the map is not recognized when creating a “non-weather emergency” message. in the system.

Williams said he notified the appropriate FEMA IT people to fix the problem. He also notified the state’s IPAWS coordinator of the issue so that other Montana County disaster offices would not experience the same issue.

“I was told today that they are aware of the situation, but there is no solution. Not that they’re not trying to fix it, but that there isn’t right now,” Williams said.

The message caused a wave of confusion throughout the county. The city/county’s 9-1-1 dispatch center responded to hundreds of calls from people concerned about their safety, Williams said.

“It caused quite a stir,” Williams said.

Williams said the county’s Department of Disaster and Emergency Services will learn from the accident and better future messages to describe the specific location affected.

On the bright side, the first emergency message that was sent about the hostage situation at 6:49 a.m. via the CodeRED emergency notification app was sent as scheduled, only addressing those in the within the expected one-block radius, Williams said.


Q2 News / Mitch Lagge

A map showing where the CodeRED alert was successfully routed. The CodeRed alert was only sent to phones within the block of Lake Elmo Drive, Wicks Lane, Cody Drive, and Stillwater Lane.

The county and city began using the CodeRED app in 2019. It allows local emergency officials to broadcast voice or text messages over phone lines subscribed to the free service. Williams said CodeRED is used for more localized emergencies and incidents, like flooding, flooding and road construction. He said the IPAWS system has a higher level of control over the type of emergencies it will notify.

The CodeRed system sent voice and text messages to 97 phones and 66 phones received the message. The CodeRed app sent the message: “Law Enforcement Presence — Evacuate area if possible — stay out of area.”

“Had we had a larger percentage of CodeRED participants, we would have felt more comfortable just using CodeRED, but in a public safety case, you want to make sure we have redundant systems and that we reach as many people as possible. . Today, unfortunately, we went over the line,” Williams said.

Williams said everyone in the county should sign up for CodeRED. You can set up a cell phone to receive voice or text messages about emergencies. If you activate location services, it will follow you to other municipalities that have subscribed to the service and notify you of emergencies if you go to a dangerous place.

To find out how to register, visit the county government website by clicking here.

RELATED: CodeRed: Are Your Emergency Notifications On in Yellowstone County?

Gordon K. Morehouse