Breaking News
More () »

'We need to figure out what happened' | How did the Roseville shelter-in-place alert accidentally spread so far?

Roseville Police and Ramsey County say they're sorry for the confusion caused by the widespread alert, which was intended for a neighborhood near a homicide scene.

ROSEVILLE, Minn. — As they searched for a homicide suspect Tuesday morning, Roseville Police called for a shelter-in-place, designed to reach people within a one-square-mile radius of the scene on Ryan Avenue. 

But as tens of thousands of people in the Twin Cities metro area soon discovered, the alert system pinged cell phones throughout Ramsey County and beyond around 10:50 a.m., triggering lockdowns and lockouts in schools nowhere near the homicide. 

Neighboring law enforcement agencies rushed to social media to offer clarification. To the west, in Minneapolis, the police department reassured people that "the concern is localized to the Roseville area" and that "Minneapolis residents do not need to be concerned at this time." To the east, in Woodbury, the public safety department told people to "disregard this emergency alert" from Roseville. In St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter said the alert "inadvertently went out wider than intended."

Within 25 minutes of the initial alert, Ramsey County sent a subsequent message to clarify who needed to shelter in place, before announcing at 11:30 a.m. that the threat was over. 

But the damage had been done.

"The original intention, is that the shelter-in-place would go out to this neighborhood, since we believed he was on foot. Obviously, it went out to a much wider area," Roseville Police Chief Erika Scheider said. "We know that caused a lot of concern so we'll certainly be looking into what happened and make sure that doesn't happen again."

It's not clear at this time how the mistake occurred. 

RELATED: Lily Peters' death prompts discussion of Amber Alert requirements, leads to calls for change

The Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which has been active in the United States for the last decade, can be used by local agencies like Roseville Police if they believe there are "imminent threats to safety or life." It is the same system used for AMBER Alerts and severe weather notifications.

While Roseville Police made the initial decision to issue the shelter-in-place, the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center distributed the message through FEMA's "Integrated Public Alert and Warning System," known as IPAWS, which then carried the alert to wireless carriers and designated cell towers.

Scott Williams, the deputy county manager for Ramsey County's Safety and Justice Service Team, said the county is working with the state and FEMA to determine what broke down in the system on Tuesday. 

"The extent to which the message went far and wide — that was not right. We're really sorry this happened. It was not our intention." Williams said. "We started hearing about daycares and schools getting locked down in other counties, and we're going, 'woah, something went terribly wrong here.'" 

According to Williams, two 911 operators — including a supervisor — worked together on the alert and "used the polygon feature to limit the extent of the warning," as Roseville Police had asked. However, through the FEMA system and the wireless carriers, the message hit cell towers across Ramsey County and then spilled into neighboring counties. 

Williams said the investigation will take a hard look at each aspect of the alert system. 

"What software logs are available to us so that we can look at what steps were taken? Was there a step missing? Was there an issue with the software? We'll contact the vendor and ask if there was something with the software. Did the message go out correctly, but it wasn't accepted or wasn't handled properly by the federal part of the system?" Williams said. "Or was there some error when translated into the carrier networks? We don't know. The further downstream the solution is, the longer it's going to take to figure it out."

Coincidentally, the alert's expanded reach may have helped police find the suspect in Tuesday's homicide. Roseville Police say that their partners in the St. Paul Police Department arrested the suspect near the State Fairgrounds, acting on a tip from someone who had received the shelter-in-place just outside of the intended zone.

However, both Roseville Police and Ramsey County acknowledged that the alert should not have been sent so broadly.

"It undermines public confidence in this tool," Williams said. "We need to figure out what happened so it doesn't happen again." 

MORE NEWS: Man sentenced to two years for role in conspiracy to buy illegal gun used in Truck Park shooting

Watch more of Minnesota sports:

Watch the latest sports videos - from high school hockey to the Minnesota Vikings and everything in between - in our YouTube playlist:

Before You Leave, Check This Out