Residents in San Luis Obispo, California were shocked and unsettled when at approximately 3:56 pm on Friday warning sirens sounded off near the intersection of Orcutt and Biddle Ranch Road. The sirens, which are designed to alert the public in the event of an emergency, are part of Diablo Canyon Power – an electricity generating nuclear power plant near the popular and picturesque Avila Beach. Apparently Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) crews were making upgrades to the siren system and they inadvertently triggered the alert. Residents responded to the wailing of sirens with confusion and trepidation, which was further compounded by a subsequent cell phone “push alert” advising the public to, “Prepare for action.”
According to San Luis Obispo County Officials, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) was triggered by the PG&E crew’s upgrade activity on the early warning nuclear alert siren. The problem was further compounded when officials sent a message to California law enforcement that the siren alert was false. That message subsequently set off the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) – the same system that is used to issue Amber Alerts. The WEA then broadcast a system alert via a text message to all cell phones in the county. In the meantime, the siren continued to wail, as it could not be shut off by remote but had to be disabled manually.
The cell phone text alert message is designed to get people’s attention and thus arrives with an alarming audible tone. The language in the alert indicated that there was a “civil emergency in the area.” For ten minutes recipients of that alert had no idea what was going on and if the alert presented a real and present danger or was just a test. Ten minutes after the first text alert, county officials issued a second one informing residents that the text warning was a false alarm. Apparently, it took ten minutes to issue the second alert because there was no standard language already set to inform the public that a previous alert was not really an alert.
By some reports, people in San Luis Obispo County were concerned not just about the potential for a nuclear or natural disaster in California but also about mass shootings given that such shootings have all too recently been in the news. Some however, after seeking information via news sites posted social media comments of levity such as, “Civil emergency? Was someone trying to get out of work early?” and “I really hope that was by mistake …Got me thinking it’s about to turn into the Walking Dead around here!”
Diablo Canyon Power Plant became the only operational nuclear power plant in California after the San Onofre nuclear plant was shut down. According to PG&E, the power plant “is a safe, clean, reliable and vital energy resource for California.” Further, the company touts its ability to produce “low-cost, carbon-free” electricity, which serves some three million people.
County officials are still not quite sure how the early warning alarm sirens were triggered but have stated that they are grateful they learned of the system confusion before there was an actual emergency. According to Blair Jones of PG&E, San Luis Obispo’s 130 other emergency alert sirens are all in good working order. The sirens are designed to serve a critical function in the event of a real emergency. The fact that they are in proper working order is likely reassuring to the public for two reasons. First, because they do serve an important purpose and second, because in a county that is home to a nuclear power plant, erroneous alerts that call for the public to “prepare for action” are still likely to generate a significant amount of fear and trepidation.
By Alana Marie Burke