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Terrorism scare rattles residents in Old Saybrook

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published August 19. 2013 10:00AM   Updated August 20. 2013 2:40PM
Message broadcast by mistake warns town under attack

Old Saybrook — A police dispatcher sent out a prerecorded, loudspeaker message Sunday afternoon telling residents to seek shelter because of a terrorist attack. Shortly after, the police department sent out a mass telephone message to 5,000 residents that said there was no emergency or homeland security crisis.

Police Chief Michael A. Spera said that the department received a few calls but that there wasn’t panic in town.

Jim Reck, who lives near the fire department where the initial announcement was made, said the experience was “unsettling.”

“I looked at my wife and my wife was like, ‘Oh my God, did that just say what I think it said?’”

He said he initially looked outside and there seemed to be a sudden stream of cars in the street. Then he checked Twitter, Facebook and the television, he said.

“There was nothing, which made it even more, I think that kind of magnified the uncertainty, so I was like, OK let’s go,” Reck said.

He and his wife jumped in the car and drove to Main Street where they saw people sitting around outside at Penny Lane Pub.

“We figured they thought everything was safe or that they didn’t care — one last meal,” Reck said.

There was also no activity at the firehouse, he said.

So they decided to go back home. Shortly afterward he saw that Fire Chief JT Dunn had responded to a Facebook message Reck had posted. Dunn asked Reck to call him.

Reck called and found out that the message had gone out by mistake. Dunn also informed Reck about the mass-calling emergency system, Everbridge, which Reck had not signed up for.

The mass-calling system reaches residents’ home phones, but if someone has a cell phone they need to sign up for the service at ctalerts.gov, Spera said.

Spera said the dispatcher was trying to send out a message to the fire department to clean up Fireman’s Field after a fundraising event Saturday for returning U.S. Marine Sgt. David Tupper.

When the dispatcher did not see the button he was looking for on the computer screen, he went to a second window labeled emergency management, Spera said.

“He thought he did his job when in fact what he did was send out that we are under terrorist attack message,” Spera said.

The chief said his options were to ignore the message, send out another loudspeaker message or use the mass-calling system, which he chose to use because of how quickly information travels these days on social media sites.

“I thought the best thing I could do is alert all our citizens that a mistake was made and that there was no active emergency,” he said.

The three areas where the loudspeaker message was broadcast were the fire department, Fenwick and Saybrook Point, he said.

There is an internal review underway and some sort of corrective action will be taken, Spera said. It may or may not be discipline with the employee or procedural corrective action, he added.

He said there hasn’t been a problem in the 10 years the loudspeaker system has been used. In the past, the loudspeaker system has been used to warn residents about tropical storms and hurricanes.

“We will not let yesterday’s mistake cloud the future of communicating with our residents during a crisis,” Spera said Monday.

First Selectman Carl Fortuna said the matter was dealt with appropriately.

“It was clearly a mistake,” he said. “As soon as he (Spera) realized there was a mistake, he took corrective action.”

Any follow-up response will be handled by Spera, who is the dispatcher’s supervisor, Fortuna said.

“It’s an internal matter,” he said.

Reck said he thought most people’s first reaction would be “How can someone make such a horrifying mistake, but at the same time we all make mistakes every day.”

He added that he would be OK, “as long as they address it, whether it is more training or more oversight.”

j.somers@theday.com

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