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Emergency alert mistakenly sent to 398,000 phones before dispatcher cancelled it

The alert in Jefferson County over the weekend still made it to 168,000 phones before it was cancelled. Now, it's time to identify the flaw in the system.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — Emergency alert notifications can save lives, but we’re learning now that the list of people signed up to receive them is not always accurate. Some counties collect phone numbers over the years but can’t keep track of who still lives in the area.

An alert that was mistakenly sent out this weekend highlighted this issue. 

The alert was supposed to go out to 25 people around an apartment complex police were at in Lakewood. Instead, 168,000 phones started ringing shortly after midnight on Sunday. 

"I live in Westminster, Colorado, in Adams County," said Karen Hartman, who got the phone call on her phone. "If something awful is happening, I want to make sure I get the right one. Not one from 15 miles away."

Karen doesn’t even live in Jefferson County and says she only signed up for alerts for her area in Westminster after the Marshall Fire.  

Turns out Westminster uses the same system for emergency alerts as Jefferson County. So does Broomfield. Some people could get alerts for areas farther from their home depending on their notification settings, especially when the alert is sent out to everyone.

"People need to know when something is going on in their community and around their house," said Jeff Streeter, Executive Director of Jeffcom911. "This went too broad, and we recognize that, and we apologize for those actions."

Streeter wants as many people as possible to sign up for emergency alerts. But after Sunday’s mistake, his office got enough calls from people who no longer live in the area or people who wanted to be taken off the list that they started an email to unsubscribe people. That email is Alert-unsubscribe@jeffcom911.org.

"If you haven’t lived in Jefferson County and you were part of that old legacy system, we can get you out of it," Streeter said. "But I would always encourage people to re-register within their counties with whatever alert system exists."

Jeffco’s emergency alert list has hundreds of thousands of numbers. If anyone has ever signed up for any iteration of the alert system there at any time, their number is likely still registered. The county doesn’t have the means to audit the system to find out who actually still lives in the area.

As soon as the alert went out on Sunday night, the dispatcher who sent it realized something was wrong. 9NEWS was told they cancelled the alert and limited the number of people who got it to 168,000. 

If they hadn’t cancelled it, nearly 400,000 people would have received that phone call in the middle of the night. The vast majority were not even close to the scene where the police were.

"We didn’t have the means or the capability either on the vendor side or our side to call every phone number and check it to see if people still wanted to stay within it," Streeter said. 

In the days since the alert mistakenly went out to more than 160,000 people, Jeffcom911 said they’ve continued using the emergency alert system and it’s worked perfectly fine. 

There is still no definitive answer to whether what happened on Sunday was a glitch in the system or human error, but the folks in Jeffco describe it as a fluke and say they still have faith in the system.

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