CONTRA COSTA COUNTY -- An evacuation order sent to cellphones across Contra Costa County during an Alamo gas leak last month was the result of a technical glitch that caused a federal emergency alert system to broadcast it far wider than necessary, county officials said.
The order, intended only to evacuate certain Alamo residents during a July 24 gas leak, was sent to cellphones countywide. The county's emergency alert vendor, Alerting Solutions, mistakenly activated a tool linked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to county emergency services officials.
Orders to evacuate the area were sent via text message shortly before noon after a work crew hit a gas line at 3195 Danville Blvd., near Stone Valley Road.
The first alert, originally broadcast to about 2,000 people in the Stone Valley Road area, ordered residents in designated parts of Alamo to leave their homes and move as far south on the street as possible as a precaution. Those residents were told to take only essential items that could be carried with them, to put pets on leashes or in carriers and to turn off all heat sources in their homes.
The second alert, which was sent out when one of the system's FEMA options was unknowingly activated, said only "Evacuations in Contra Costa County," alarming residents who did not know why they were being ordered to go.
Heather Tiernan, manager of the Emergency Services Division's community warning system, said the glitch occurred when the team was trying to implement one of the tools they don't use often, and the code did not block one of the new federal tools that distributes alerts more widely.
"That particular tool went live in April 2012, and we've never used it before," Tieman said. "It can only broadcast at the county level, so it would have to be a pretty widespread emergency to justify using that text message to notify so many people."
Tieman could not estimate how many people received the notification, and said it was distributed to all compatible cellphones with carriers that participate in the federal program. While she could not speak to which carriers participate, she said Metro PCS appears to have sent the majority of the texts.
"When people outside of Alamo got the vague message, most investigated on their own," Tieman said. "Most people were able to figure out on their own that they weren't affected by that notification."
Tieman notes that the glitch has since been fixed and that the county is working with FEMA to keep similar errors from happening again.