The Phones That Cried Wolf

December 16, 2011
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Mistaken Verizon Message Alarms Officials, Residents

By John Burton

MONMOUTH COUNTY SHERIFF Shaun Golden was in a staff meeting on Monday when everyone’s smart phones began signaling an incoming text message.
Golden looked at his Android, as his colleagues checked their Blackberries. “I looked up and asked, ‘Hey, did anybody get this alert?’”
The message said that there was a civil emergency in the area until 1:24 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and to take shelter now,” he said.
“That was our initial concern, that something happened,” Golden said on Tuesday.
Golden contacted the NJ State Police, was informed there was no emergency. And, like Golden, there were a number of worried people who had gotten the same message and didn’t know what was going on.
David Samberg, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said the message that went out at about noon on Monday, was intended to be a test of the emergency alert system, but was inadvertently not identified as one. “It was a mistake,” he acknowledged. “And we apologize for it.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that this could go out like that,” Golden said. “We would hope there were checks in place before such a message goes out.”
The message went to Verizon Wireless customers in Monmouth, Middlesex and Ocean counties. But Samberg was unable to say how many of them actually received it. “It is kind of a moving number,” he said. “It was whoever was in that geographic area.”
Red Bank Police received the message, along with enough calls from residents to prompt them to send out their own emergency notification letting residents know the civil defense message was a “hoax” according to town’s alert. Initially, there was some worry it was the work of a hacker, Red Bank Police Captain Darren McConnell said.
“It wasn’t the case of an unauthorized person getting in, it wasn’t the case at all,” Samberg said.
However it occurred, “It did cause quite a stir in the county,” Golden said,, noting that the county’s Office of Emergency Management received more than 175 calls, triple what it would normally get during that time period.
This emergency notification system involved is a modern version of “what we see in the middle of the night on the TV,” with a test pattern, informing viewers that it is a test and what to do in case of a real emergency, Golden said. The system is designed to notify the public of “something that would be a major disruption,” such as a natural disaster or some sort of attack.
“In one sense it’s good we know that it was internal, inadvertently done, it wasn’t malicious,” Golden said, adding that he hopes Verizon keeps its promise to the sheriff that it would investigate and prevent a recurrence of the false alarm.

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