The state’s first use of a Blue Alert provided a lesson for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
A Blue Alert is a notification alerting residents to a dangerous situation involving a law enforcement officer, such as a suspect at large who has injured or killed an officer. The law creating Blue Alerts was approved in March 2015 and the system has been usable since May 2015. The Bureau of Criminal Investigation determines when to issue a Blue Alert and one was issued for the first time on Jan. 18 as Bismarck Police searched for Ulises Villalobos-Alvarado. He’s accused of trying to run over a Bismarck officer with a vehicle.
He later surrendered in Brookings, S.D. Police believed he had fled Bismarck, thus the use of the statewide Blue Alert. Since Blue Alerts had never been issued before and it has been more than two years since they were adopted, people weren’t familiar with them. When the alert popped up on cellphones and other mobile devices people were confused.
Many people know about Amber Alerts, issued for a missing and vulnerable child. They also are aware of weather alerts, but the Blue Alert was something unknown. Law enforcement agencies received phone calls asking about the situation. Alerts can be issued for parts of the state or the entire state. This alert went statewide because officials weren’t sure where the suspect went. The Blue Alert crashed the Emergency Services website from too many users at one time, a situation officials say has been resolved.
Emergency personnel didn’t do anything wrong. They issued the alert on the request of BCI and followed all the steps required in issuing an alert. The system requires six steps to issue any alert, including a test. This wasn’t a case like in Hawaii when the state’s Emergency Management Agency accidentally issued a false alert Jan. 13 warning that ballistic missiles were headed toward the islands.
Concern was high in Bismarck because during the day eight schools sheltered in place. This action is a precautionary measure taken when there’s no immediate threat to students or staff. The Blue Alert added to the concern.
In retrospect it would have been good if Emergency Services had issued some public service announcements between 2015 and now about Blue Alerts. Obviously, not everyone would have noticed the announcements, but it could have reduced the level of concern.
The different emergency alerts serve a valuable purpose. It’s good to know the state has protocols to follow that should prevent alerts from being issued by mistake. After last week many residents now know about Blue Alerts. For more information about Blue Alerts go to nd.gov/publicalert.