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New York town sends out emergency alert on 9/11 — to wash your hands

Registered nurse Claire Nelson uses a hand sanitizer before seeing a patient at Elmhurst Hospital on Nov. 25, 2019.(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
September 18, 2020

It was just a test.

But an “emergency alert” blasted out a little after 9 a.m. last Friday by the Town of Tonawanda that somehow ended up on thousands of Erie County residents’ cellphones caused momentary panic – before people read it and realized it was just a friendly reminder to wash your hands and wear a mask.

It turns out that the town’s emergency services was testing out the alert system, according to town officials.

“Somebody made a mistake. A bad mistake,” acknowledged Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger, who apologized for the incident in a series of posts to Twitter throughout the day.

He also acknowledged that it was “an inappropriate day to do it. An inappropriate time to do it.” Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and many communities were holding solemn commemorations in the morning when cellphones buzzed with the alert.

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The “Emergency Alert” told people to “continue to keep you and your family safe from Covid-19” by following the CDC’s recommendations, including washing your hands, wearing a mask, covering up when you cough or sneeze and to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

The good news is the test worked, Emminger said Friday after fielding a barrage of texts and calls from confused constituents. The bad news, he said, is so many people visited the town’s website, per the instructions in the alert, that it crashed. It remained down shortly after 10 a.m.

“The website crashed. It got overwhelmed,” he said.

The town’s emergency services coordinator had planned to test the system, but Emminger said she didn’t tell anyone on the Town Board that she was going to do it on the morning of Sept. 11.

“She didn’t tell anybody that she was doing this,” Emminger said. “We weren’t prepared for it.”

He also said he doesn’t know why the notice didn’t make clear this was a test.

“This was a mistake. I’ll take responsibility for it,” Emminger said.

“I apologize for anybody who got anxiety over this alert, and it won’t happen again,” he said.

Emminger said he also doesn’t know why the message spread as widely as it did but he believes it got pulled into the county’s emergency alert system. He said he’s heard from people as far away as Albany who received the alert but he assumes they bought their phones in Erie County and have 716 numbers.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz took to Twitter and said the alert was a “training error” by the town’s emergency manager and that it didn’t come from the county’s emergency alert system.

Tonawanda Police Chief James Stauffiger said that the alert was an attempt to try out a new system for broadcasting emergency messages that uses cellphone signals, as opposed to specific names and phone numbers on a list. He, too, apologized for causing alarm and for the unfortunate timing of the incident.

Town Board member Bill Conrad and Shannon Patch both tweeted their dismay about the alert.

“It was not approved and the timing – on such a somber and important day for our country – is problematic. We are looking at went wrong and making sure it will never happen again,” Conrad tweeted.

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© 2020 The Free Lance-Star