Widespread Green Bay emergency-alert glitch could lead to a better alert system

Brown County's emergency management director explains how a neighborhood alert spread across county lines
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 4:52 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2022 at 10:15 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Green Bay’s east side and, unintentionally, other parts of WBAY’s viewing area, were put on high alert Tuesday night after a gas leak prompted authorities to issue an emergency alert through cell phones.

Authorities intended to alert to reach fewer than 20 homes in the immediate area of a gas leak on Edgewood Drive near Hillside Lane, advising families nearby to evacuate with their pets.

But the alert went to people across the city and even other counties.

911 caller: “I just got an emergency alert on my phone about evacuating if I live near Edgewood and Hillside. I don’t know where that is in relation to where I live... Pulaski, Wisconsin.”

Dispatcher: “OK, that’s gonna be Green Bay. You’re completely fine to stay where you’re at.”

A neighbor smelled gas on the 500-block of Edgewood Dr. and called 911. Multiple agencies responded, including police, fire, and the Wisconsin Public Service utility to shut off the gas believed to be coming from a stove inside a house that was condemned due to unsafe living conditions.

With the risk of a gas explosion, Green Bay police contacted Brown County Emergency Management to send an evacuation alert to homes nearby. The emergency management director used a FEMA program, I-PAWS, that sends alerts to any wireless device instead of using the county’s CodeRED program in which people had to sign up to receive alerts.

“When you’re trying to notify a neighborhood of a situation, you don’t want to just tell the people that sign up for something when it’s a life safety issue. You want to tell everyone right within that intended area,” Lauri Maki, Brown County Emergency Management director, said.

Within a half-hour, dispatchers received about 40 to 50 calls from concerned citizens. Realizing the glitch, emergency management canceled the alert so it wouldn’t continue going out to more phones outside the area of concern.

Maki explained, “It’s something as simple as, was someone’s phone connected to a tower in Green Bay that bounced across the bay, or was the last time your phone connected to a tower in Green Bay but now you’re home in Wrightstown and it’s still pinging off of there. There’s a lot of factors, and it’s something that we are trying to help Wisconsin Emergency Management and FEMA work through by having data like last night saying see this is what happened, how can we fix this going forward?”

Maki said the glitch is unfortunate but it did help people who were in the immediate threat.

“The issue with the alert, more is better in that scenario. And we’ll deal with people who live 10 miles away knowing that alert, but it did not affect our response.”

We asked a police commander about the reverse: What happens when the people the alert was intended for don’t get the message?

“We don’t rely solely on the message sent out via text. Officers will go door to door, knocking on doors, because what ends if someone doesn’t look at their cell phone or doesn’t get to their phone, or doesn’t have a cell phone and they only have a landline? You know, we have to take that in consideration, and going door to door when seconds count in situations like that,” Commander Kevin Warych said.

Maki said the glitch did not affect the police, fire or WPS response to the gas leak.

Brown County Emergency Management will send Tuesday night’s data to Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and cell phone providers in hopes of improving the system.

They’re also looking at ways to make their emergency alerts more informative by including a link to additional details about the location and the incident. Currently, they’re limited to only 90 characters for an alert.

“The bottom line is, we get to have conversations with our guys because it didn’t go out the way intended, but at the same time the only way to get better is to continue to use it and continuing to try to improve, how can we do better next time?”

We asked a police commander, what if people the message was intended for didn't receive it?
Multiple agencies will investigate the glitch that sent an alert intended for 10-20 homes to phones across Green Bay and beyond