Nobody's perfect. But everybody can learn from their mistakes.
So from my vantage point, here's what I see could have been handled better regarding the toxic algae warnings in Salem-area water systems that went out yesterday.
It sure seems like people should have been notified earlier. A Statesman Journal story reports that City of Salem staff knew last Saturday, May 26, that unhealthy levels of toxic algae had been detected. (Lacey Goeres-Priest is Salem's water quality supervisor.)
Water was sampled late last week and officials received the results of testing the water on Saturday, said Goeres-Priest. The results showed toxin levels were higher than a health advisory level for vulnerable communities and children, but remained below safe levels for adults.
The city has been coordinating with the Oregon Health Authority over the weekend.
After consulting with the OHA and Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Salem issued the advisory based on the data.
Why did it take until Tuesday to issue the health advisory, when it was known on Saturday that there was a toxic algae problem? The Memorial Day weekend shouldn't be an excuse.
According to a Drinking Water Advisory page on the the City of Salem web site, "Vulnerable communities" include children under the age of six, people with compromised immune systems, people receiving dialysis treatment, people with pre-existing liver conditions, pets (and other animals), pregnant women or nursing mothers, or other sensitive populations.
There's a lot of people in Salem who fall into the "vulnerable community" category. These people would have appreciated knowing about the toxins in their water supply as soon as possible, which appears to have been last Saturday.
Yet it took until early evening on Tuesday before alerts were sent out by City officials.
Apparently that didn't happen until this issue was discussed at last night's City Council meeting. It's hard to understand why the three-day delay occurred. Salem's Mayor and city councilors should demand answers to why City staff delayed notifying the public about the elevated levels of toxic algae.
Here's a comment I noted on the City of Salem Facebook page that speaks to the frustration many people are feeling about the delayed notification. This person's children may not be sick from toxic algae, but there's a possibility Salem's water was the cause of their illness.
We have four kids under 6 who have been sick the last 5 days and you wait till 8:30 pm Tuesday, five days after the fact ( who knows even more?) to let us know why????!!!!
The initial emergency alert was handled badly. My wife and I live in rural south Salem, a few miles outside of the city limits. We have a well, as do all of our neighbors. Yet this is the alert that arrived loudly on our cell phones Tuesday evening:
This is about the most useless emergency alert imaginable. It told us nothing about what the civil emergency was, nor how we were to Prepare For Action.
Now, it's good that the Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director, Andrew Phelps, issued an apology via a video that was posted on the City of Salem Facebook page. He said the initial alert was a mistake, and his office would conduct a "forsenic analysis" of the steps they took to send the first message.
OK. That's great. But the mistake shouldn't have happened in the first place.
Plus, it took 31 minutes to send out a second alert saying that this was a water safety problem, during which time people had no idea whether the emergency was an earthquake, nuclear attack, zombie apocalypse, or whatever.
One would think that the Oregon Office of Emergency Management would put in a lot of practice about what to do when the public needs to be notified about an emergency. Yet they totally blew it initially. This doesn't give me a lot of confidence about the Office's ability to handle emergencies, since in this instance it was incapable of doing an acceptable job of communicating with the public.
Like I said above, nobody's perfect.
But us citizens should expect that Oregon's emergency management staff will operate on a near-perfect level, because the consequences of imperfection are a lot more serious than, say, me forgetting to get something on our grocery list when I shop at Fred Meyer.
The Statesman Journal has just posted a story about the mishandled emergency alert that contains some disquieting information.
The head of Oregon's Office of Emergency Management is apologizing after his agency sent a vague wireless emergency alert without "specific information we had meant to send" about Salem's contaminated drinking water advisory.
"This was a failure on our part," Andrew Phelps, director of the emergency agency, said in a video posted to social media.
Phelps said the integrated public alert and warning system "inadvertently defaulted to a generic message." He said agency officials rushed to give updates on social media and manually override the generic message, pushing another alert with information on the water advisory.
...In an interview Wednesday with the Statesman Journal, Phelps said Tuesday marked the first time ever the state had used its wireless emergency alert system.
"As soon as we saw it on our own phones, yeah, we knew pretty quickly that it did not work the way we had expected it to work," he said.
Phelps said a senior IT staff member trained on the emergency alert system typed in the message with approval from an executive duty officer, he said.
Hmmmm. The Oregon Office of Emergency Management had never tested the wireless emergency alert system. Why not?
Us baby boomers remember the old days when televisions and radios would broadcast tests of the Emergency Management System back in the Cold War days. And, if I recall correctly, more recently. The tests would say, "This is a test." Wouldn't it have been better to test the wireless emergency management system rather than waiting for an actual emergency to try it out?