A communication issue between the local public notification system and a federal system led to numerous area residents being given errant evacuation messages following a train derailment near Burlington Sunday.
Minot Police Chief John Klug told the Minot City Council Monday that the messages meant to go only to four phones identified in about a 1,640-yard target area went to others in locations from Minot to Surrey, Logan and Sawyer. He said the error was quickly caught and reversed within two minutes.
“We’re still looking into our portion of what took place with the train derailment. But I did get some answers put together and I think, hopefully, it helps the public understand that we did everything right. The system just didn’t like what we did,” Klug said.
BNSF Railway called in the derailment at 1:12 am and provided a train manifest. The Burlington Police Department responded, as did the Burlington Fire Department, which requested mutual aid from Minot Rural Fire Department, according to the timeline provided by Klug. BNSF police arrived shortly after 1:30 am to assist in reading the manifest and the decision was made to evacuate the immediate area. Phone calls from Central Dispatch weren’t successful at reaching residents so the decision was made to activate the Hyper-Reach system, which serves as a reverse 911 and in this case connected with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS ), which is in place for mass notifications.
“We believe that’s where the problem came in,” Klug said. “The problem was IPAWS works off of cell phone towers, so when that message went out, it started pinging off cell phone towers.”
Since the message was directed to four phones, it only instructed residents to call for details. Only the reach went beyond four residents, and Central Dispatch phone lines were inundated with calls, kicking calls over to State Radio. However, by catching the problem early, Central Dispatch was able to limit the errant notifications that were in the process of going out in batches, Klug said.
“It’s not that the system doesn’t work. The system works, but once the communication happens between Hyper-Reach and IPAWS, we have no control over it. We are working with both IPAWS and Hyper-Reach to see if there’s any way that we can refine that,” he said.
Currently, there is a review of whether Hyper-Reach is the best product and whether another product might work better with IPAWS, Klug said. Previously, the city used Code Red, which did not have the same issues with IPAWS, he said. The messages themselves that get sent out also are being re-examined.
“Some of that is just a clarification of what people are supposed to do,” Klug said. “In this case, we thought it was only going to four people, and when it went beyond that — that didn’t work out for us. So we have learned a very important lesson from that and will change the way we do business.”
In other business, the Minot City Council Improved voted to keep the Anne Street Bridge in its five-year Capitalment plan and approved a $780,000 Magic Fund grant to Souris Basin Planning Council to replenish its Business Accelerator Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides local matching dollars for Bank of North Dakota interest buydowns.
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