The first job of government is to protect its people, as much as possible, from all manner of harm. An integral part of doing that is to effectively warn them when danger approaches.

But officials in Contra Costa County just can't get the hang of that last part of the equation.

The latest debacle -- and there have been too many to detail in such a short space -- happened last week when hundreds of Alamo residents and employees were erroneously forced to evacuate homes and businesses because of a gas leak. In fact, there was a leak that occurred when an East Bay Municipal Utility District crew struck a gas line with a hoe around 10:30 a.m. at 3195 Danville Blvd. The intent of the alert apparently was to evacuate homes and businesses in a three-square-block area, but the alert that was sent out was much broader.

Matthew Dunnigan, 13, right, carries his cat Sabi, as he and his mother make their way down Danville Boulevard as crews work on a gas leak along Danville
Matthew Dunnigan, 13, right, carries his cat Sabi, as he and his mother make their way down Danville Boulevard as crews work on a gas leak along Danville Boulevard near Stone Valley Road, in Alamo, Calif., on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. A work crew ruptured the gas line in the morning, forcing the evacuation of business and residents in the area through the afternoon while the gas leak was capped. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

In fact, it went out countywide and warned some who received it to immediately leave the county and take only essential belongings with them. Yikes! Sounds pretty serious, doesn't it?

A Sheriff's Office spokesman said Friday that the broader alert was caused by a private vendor's mistake that sent the warning message to the wrong warning system.

Somehow, this was supposed to make us feel better. You know, it was a technical mistake, it could happen to anybody. And if it had just happened once we might buy that. But such "technical" mistakes seem to be the norm rather than the exception in Contra Costa. False and inadequate warnings have been going on here for years and each time it was a "technical" mistake.

The Sheriff's Office spokesman said that an investigation had revealed Alerting Solutions Inc., the vendor for the Contra Costa County Community Warning System, had erred by sending the alert message through the county's Wireless Emergency Alert System. He said that system doesn't have the capability of sending customized or targeted messages. It can't send to anything less than the entire county.

That might come in handy in a nuclear attack, but it is clearly not an effective vehicle for warning about a limited-area gas leak.

The Sheriff's Office spokesman said the county is working with its wireless alert vendor to prevent future errors with the alert system. Again, that might be comforting if it was the first time we had heard it, but it isn't. It is what we hear after each one of these notification failures.

A system that is wildly unreliable is not much different from having no system at all. If people don't believe it, they are not going to respond to it. It is time for the county to get serious about warning its residents or to admit defeat and save some money.