A countywide evacuation order that crawled ominously — and falsely — across Suffolk television screens Saturday night as Tropical Storm Hermine approached was caused by the federal alert system that automatically generated a summary of the county’s warning but cut off the longer message, federal and county officials said Monday.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said its officials are investigating why the message, sent by Suffolk County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services, was shortened. County officials said they wouldn’t use the Emergency Alert System again until they had answers.
Sent from county emergency offices in the basement of a county building in Yaphank, the message that was supposed to appear was for a voluntary evacuation of Fire Island. Instead, what showed up on television screens at 7:40 p.m. on Saturday night read, “Civil Authorities have issued an Evacuation Immediate for the following New York counties: Suffolk. Effective until September 04-07:10 AM EDT. This is an emergency message from.” It ended there.
The partial message sparked a flood of 911 calls from concerned residents and agencies, said Greg Miniutti, chief of communication for the Department of Suffolk Fire and Rescue.
“It was controlled chaos,” Miniutti said. “The phone was ringing off the hook.”
While Bellone’s team took to Facebook to correct the alert and the police sent their own messages that county residents didn’t need to leave, Miniutti and his team scrambled. They couldn’t cancel the message. But they tried to send another.
They guessed a shorter version might go through, rather than the 600-character advisory originally sent. And it did.
About 10 to 15 minutes after the first message, the original warning reappeared with the new message — “UPDATED Message — Voluntary evacuation of Fire Island ONLY by 1 pm Saturday 9/4/16” — tacked onto the end.
Miniutti said the dispatch supervisor who sends the alert typed in the message correctly through the county’s Code Red system, which it buys through a vendor to interact with the federal systems, including the Emergency Alert System.
FEMA spokeswoman Lauren Lefebvre said the original message that appeared on television is generated automatically by the computer system. The agency is investigating why the rest of the county’s message wasn’t broadcast.
“We’ve formally asked New York State Emergency Management to find out what happened,” Suffolk Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services Commissioner Joseph Williams said. “Not to point fingers, but to find out what happened. We want to make sure what happened doesn’t happen again.”
The county will continue to use other aspects of the federal notification system, which allows it to send messages in other ways, including text messages to mobile phones near specific cell towers — as it did on Saturday night when the voluntary evacuation of Fire Island was enacted.
Lefebvre said she did not know of another instance when an abbreviated automated alert was sent in error. She said the public should continue to pay attention to local officials, newscasts and emergency alerts.
“It’s peak hurricane season. Alerts will go out if needed and are critical and contain lifesaving messaging,” she said.