Local emergency text process might get tweaks and new PR after June incident

The emergency alert on June 23 startled some residents, especially when a follow-up “all clear” text never arrived.

By Chase Downey, contributor

Around 10 p.m. on June 23, hundreds of Harrisonburg residents received an emergency text.

“This is a message from the Harrisonburg Police Department. There is a high priority incident taking place in the area. Please shelter in place immediately,” the message said.

Some people received a follow-up phone call in which an automated voice repeated the same warning: “Please shelter in place immediately.”

It ended up that the messages were sent as a result of a disorderly conduct call near South Avenue. The alerts were sent out of an “abundance of caution,” said city spokesperson Michael Parks. 

An hour later, police had the situation under control and everything was back to normal except for one thing: residents who got the alert never received a message telling them what happened or that it was safe again. 

These messages were a part of the Emergency Alert System the Harrisonburg Police Department uses in conjunction with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center. In order to receive alerts, residents must voluntarily sign-up on the Emergency Communications Center’s website (http://www.hrecc.org/alert-registration/), though all landlines registered within Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are automatically a part of the system, according to HRECC Operations Team Managers Michael Sherman and Chad Siever. 

In instances where there might be a threat to the public, first responders request the emergency communications center issue a notification with vital information, such as where the emergency is and how far the radius should be from the event taking place for residents to be notified. 

The communications center employees who receive the request log into an online system where they input the message and send the alert as text messages and phone calls simultaneously to all residents within the designated area. 

All 81,327 landlines in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are in the system, with an additional 4,589 numbers — mostly cell numbers — people have voluntarily registered. Over the last four months, which is as far back as the center’s activation log goes, there have been four alerts sent out to residents. 

The emergency communications center provided text of the alerts in response to The Citizen’s Freedom of Information Act request. In addition to the June 23 alert about the disorderly conduct incident, the other incidents included: 

  • a notice to residents in one neighborhood that they might experience a outage while Columbia Gas repaired a leak.
  • another “shelter in place” alert the Harrisonburg Police Department issued for an emergency incident at the 800 block of Blue Ridge Drive; 
  • and a follow-up message to that Blue Ridge Drive alert saying the incident had been resolved.

First responders are then supposed to notify the emergency communications center when the emergency event has concluded so an “all clear” message can be issued. 

Siever said that’s what didn’t happen during the disorderly conduct issue in June. 

“One of the deficiencies that we identified [at the event on] South Avenue was that we don’t believe that that order ever came, ” Siever said, “so that all clear message was never sent out.”

It could lead to tweaks with the process. 

“As a result of that incident, it has sparked discussions internally for not only us but all of our public safety partners to better identify policy and procedure and best communication practices when executing the system,” Sherman said. “ There is definitely room for improvement there, and those discussions have begun.”

Sherman said the city received some questions after the incident, which prompted public safety officials to take a closer look at the messages that are sent out to try to develop a better plan for what information is sent out to residents. 

Lt. Chris Monahan of the Harrisonburg Police Department also acknowledged that the self-registration aspect of the system introduces another issue if they move but don’t update the system with the new address. 

For instance, people who might have first registered with the system at an address near South Avenue but later moved to a different part of town while keeping the same number would still receive an alert for an incident around South Avenue, like the one in June. 

“So if you move, it’s important that you get in there and change your address,” Monahan said. 

During the initial registration process users are asked to provide an email and password for login purposes. In order to change their address, users must login to their account on the HRECC website (https://hremergencyalert.onthealert.com/Account/LogIn) and update their registration. 

And emergency officials said the alert process could use some good old fashioned public relations, as well. 

“It is a system that was launched and then has unfortunately…fallen by the wayside as far as how it’s promoted,” Sherman noted. “But that is something that we are working on internally to try to identify better ways to promote it and advertise to get additional users on the system.”

Sherman said agency staff are discussing developing a new public education video and literature for the emergency communication center’s website and social media. Siever and Sherman said the center will work with the city and HPD regarding what changes can be made.

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