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Town of Tonawanda emergency alert message a 'gross mistake,' supervisor says

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WBFO photo
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An emergency alert message was sent out Friday morning to thousands of phones in the Town of Tonawanda and neighboring communities. Tonawanda Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger said it should never have happened.

The alert went out during the 9:00 hour to countless phones, encouraging the public to continue taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID. It also offered a link to a town website for more information.

Shortly after the alert was issued, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz released the following message:

Emminger said neither he, the town council, nor the police department had prior awareness the message would be sent. He traced it to a coordinator within the town's emergency services department but did not identify the person.

"I don't believe she meant to send it out. I think she meant to send it out as a test, but didn't send it out as a test," he said.

For many, the false alarm's timing was even more disturbing, falling on the morning of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Emminger also recognized the timing and called it inappropriate.

"It was a mistake. It was a bad, gross mistake,” he said. “I'll accept full responsibility of it. I'm the supervisor of the town, I'm not going to pass the buck. We will be addressing this situation."

Another unintended consequence of Friday morning's inadvertent alert, the supervisor pointed out, was that the public's response to the web link crashed the website. Emminger saw this as a silver lining in an otherwise embarrassing incident.

"The bad news is that it crashed. The good news is that it crashed in a non-emergency situation," he said. "So we're going to be able to fix and adjust our website, so we'll be able to handle the volume that would happen in an actual emergency."

The town issued an apology by early afternoon in a written statement: "The Town of Tonawanda Police Department apologizes for an alarming COVID-19 alert generated today. The message was inadvertently sent in an unintended manner. We recognize that the date and time of the message was also poorly chosen.

"This message was the initial attempt at broadcasting a live informational message using a public alert system new to the Emergency Services Bureau of the police department. The system allows the Town of Tonawanda to transmit messages using cellular phone signals, and not specific names or phone numbers from any list.

"When implemented properly, the system can be used to provide valuable information to the public within defined areas. We are working to gain a better understanding of this system in order to deliver future communications without causing unnecessary public alarm."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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