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Operator error sends emergency alert to phones across Santa Barbara County

As a police chase unfolded at Hope Elementary School in Santa Barbara Wednesday afternoon, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department dispatch sent out an emergency alert to cell phones that read “Pursuit ended in your area with police activity, shelter in place.”

The alert came from the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which is used to warn those in immediate danger. County Sheriff’s dispatchers wanted to act quickly, with a potentially armed and dangerous man near Hope Elementary School, Bishop Diego High School and a residential area.

But when they went to send the alert to the affected area, an operator error instead sent the alert countywide.

“[Dispatch] drew a map of the impacted area and they went through the protocol to send that out,” Kelly Hoover of Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said. “And our default system is that [the selected area] didn’t save and it went countywide. We understand the inconvenience that caused, but we’re grateful that people did know that needed to know. And we’ll continue to try to get it right.”

After the chase ended, another alert went out which simply read “Suspect in custody no further danger.” The sheriff’s department says that brief description fits the usual procedure for this alert system, which delivers only the information that people absolutely need to know in an emergency situation.

“The explanation is coming today,” Hoover said. “After it happened, we didn’t exactly why it had happened. We had to look into it further. At this point, it does appear that it was an operator error. But it just has to do with how this system is set up and the default. And it didn’t save correctly.”

The widespread alert caused widespread confusion. The message went to people as far north as Grover Beach.

“I was a little confused because it said there was a shelter in place,” said Kendall Martin, who received the alert at her home in Goleta. “So I was like ‘Is there a fire? Do I need to be worried about this?'”

The Sheriff’s Department says although mistakes can happen, the dispatchers are keeping the community safe.

“This group of dispatchers, the communication dispatch center, they have good intentions,” Hoover said. “They are absolutely handling a lot. It was actually a very appropriate response for them to send that out. It just, unfortunately, because of the system and how it was saved, went out countywide.”

The Sheriff’s Department also said it is “closely reviewing” this incident and looking at both procedural changes and possible changes to the system to “reduce the chance of a similar incident occurring.”

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