Emergency management officials are investigating why a shelter-in-place cell phone alert intended for a small area of Roseville was broadcast throughout the Twin Cities metro on Tuesday, causing schools and child care centers to lock down.
Authorities sent the warning late Tuesday morning, amid a search for a teen suspected in a fatal domestic assault. Even though the message caused concern and confusion, police say it led to a quick arrest.
Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, Roseville Police Chief Erika Scheider said officers responded just before 10:30 a.m. to a report of a domestic assault in progress at a home about a mile east of the Har Mar Mall.
“When officers arrived, they found two victims with serious injuries. Both of those victims were transported to a local hospital. We also found one person who was deceased at the scene,” she said.
Scheider said investigators soon learned that the 17-year-old suspect ran away from the home. To help with the search, Roseville police called in a State Patrol aircraft, sent up drones, and enlisted a K9 unit.
During a news conference at the scene, Scheider said police also asked Ramsey County emergency dispatch to send out a cell phone text alert.
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“The initial intention was for this neighborhood to shelter in place while we attempted to locate the suspect,” she said.
The first alert — sent just before 11 a.m. — read: “Shelter in place — Homicide suspect at large described as 17year old white male.”
But that message — devoid of any information about where the suspect might be — appeared on phones from Minneapolis to Mendota Heights and beyond. About 24 minutes later, a second alert clarified that it was only for a specific part of Roseville.
Scheider said a person who received the message spotted the suspect near the State Fairgrounds and called 911. St. Paul police arrested the teen without incident, and dispatchers sent out a third phone alert at 11:30 giving the all-clear.
Scott Williams — Ramsey County’s deputy manager of safety and justice — said he’s trying to figure out why the alert went out to such a wide area.
“We feel terrible that this happened. We’re not sure why it happened. We’re trying to get answers. But we regret the confusion, and the fear, quite frankly,” he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency launched the Wireless Emergency Alerts system a decade ago. It’s designed to let authorities at various levels of government target mobile phone notifications to people in specific geographic areas. It’s often used for missing child alerts and tornado warnings.
Williams said that in Ramsey County, dispatchers draw a box on a digital map to specify where the alert should go. He said the software sends the messages through FEMA, which passes them to cell phone towers that serve the desired area.
Williams said multiple dispatchers checked Tuesday’s message and its target area before clicking send.
“For whatever reason that box that was drawn had no impact on limiting the alert, and we surmise that it went out to the entire county,” he said.
Because the alerts went to cell towers across Ramsey County, Williams said people all over the metro whose phones were within range of those towers may have received the alerts.
FEMA — on its website — says the latest version of the Wireless Emergency Alerts system is designed to work with smartphones’ GPS, and messages may overshoot their intended target area by no more than a tenth of a mile.
Williams declined to speculate why so many Twin Cities residents received messages meant for two square miles of Roseville. But said says staff at the dispatch center are working with state and federal officials and the company that wrote the county’s software to determine what went wrong.