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Federal computer system to blame for Billings alert blasted out to all Yellowstone County residents

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Posted at 9:15 AM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 11:15:40-04

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

Law enforcement officers reached out to the county emergency services department to send a message telling residents in a one-block area to shelter in place due to a hostage situation happening on the 300 block of Stillwater Lane.

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

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

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

The message was sent out through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). The system is ran through FEMA and allows local government officials to access it and disseminate emergency information to specific communities via television, cell phones and radio.

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An info graphic showing how the federally-operated Integrated Public Alert and Warning System works to distribute emergency information.

Williams said IPAWS is typically used by the National Weather Service to send warnings to people in a specific geographic area. It is also the same system used to distribute AMBER Alerts. The person who creates the alert can draw a shape on the map, and have the alert go only to people within 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 people included in the alert area would be made aware of the shelter in place. We have learned today that even though that we can circle and make the geo-location through the federal IPAWS system, it didn’t recognize the map," Williams said.

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

Williams said the IPAWS system allows the National Weather Service to draw the map and have the message send out to the desired area, but the map isn't recognized when creating a "non-weather emergency" message in the system.

Williams said he informed the proper IT people at FEMA to fix the problem. He also notified the state IPAWS coordinator of the issue so other Montana county disaster offices don't run into the same problem.

“I was told today they are aware of the situation, but there’s not a fix. Not that they’re not trying to fix it, but that there is not one right now," Williams said.

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

“It caused quite a stir," Williams said.

Williams said the county disaster and emergency services department will learn from the mishap and better word future messages to describe the specific location impacted.

On the bright side, the first emergency message that was sent out about the hostage situation at 6:49 a.m. via the CodeRED emergency notification app was sent just as planned, only going out to people in the planned one-block radius, Williams said.

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

The county and city started using the CodeRED app in 2019. It allows local emergency offials to broadcast voice or text messages to phone lines signed up for the free service. Williams said CodeRED is used for more localized emergencies and incidents, like high water, flooding, and road construction. He said the IPAWS system has a higher level of scrutiny about the type of emergencies it will notify about.

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

“Had we had a greater percentage of CodeRED participants, we would have felt more comfortable with just using the CodeRED, but in the event of public safety, you want to make sure that we have redundant systems and we reach as many people as we can. Today, unfortunately we overreached," Williams said.

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

To learn how to sign up, visit the county government's web site by clicking here.

RELATED: CodeRed: Are your emergency notifications turned on in Yellowstone County?