WV - Vague civil emergency message caused rash of curious phone calls

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Vague civil emergency message caused rash of curious phone calls 9.00 p.m. ET (216 GMT) December 23, 2000 By John Raby, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) An advisory that flashed across television screens in southern West Virginia on Saturday night was supposed tell residents about a temporary loss of 911 service.

What TV viewers saw instead was a civil emergency alert, prompting dozens of phone calls from curious and panicked residents.

"I think it was terrible,'' said Frank Smith of Clendenin. "We thought it was a chemical leak or something. We didn't know what to do. It wasn't explained at all on the screen.''

The state Office of Emergency Services activates the Emergency Alert System in the rare instances of actual emergencies. In this case, it wanted to inform residents about the lack of 911 service after a water main break at AT&T's Charleston office. The flood affected both AT&T and Verizon phone equipment.

However, the automated message in white letters on red background sent simultaneously on the area's television stations only said: "A civil emergency has been issued for the following counties: Entire state of West Virginia, Boone, Clay, Kanawha, Putnam (counties), until 6:51 p.m.''

Clay Carney, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, admitted the situation could have been handled better, but he said sending a retraction would have only futher confused viewers so the office left it alone.

Area news stations reported later in the evening about the message and its true intent.

Bill White, Kanawha County's emergency services director, tried to take a lighthearted approach to the whole situation. "At least we know people are watching,'' he said.


-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), December 24, 2000

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