Here’s Who (Should Have) Received an Emergency Alert at 3 a.m.

Wondering why you were on the list even though you live miles away? We asked the director of the Office of Emergency Management.

Everyone in Milwaukee County (and unintentionally some beyond) should have received a jolt in the early morning hours Wednesday.  The blaring emergency alert came from the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management following the shooting of a sheriff’s deputy after a traffic stop in Milwaukee near the West Allis border.

The public safety alert was issued at 3:50 a.m. with a shelter-in-place order due to a fleeing suspect deemed armed and dangerous. It included a description of the suspect and a request that residents call law enforcement if they observed any suspicious activity. The shelter-in-place order remained in effect for the area around South 64th and West Dixon streets in Milwaukee for about eight hours before an all-clear alert was issued.

The alert created serious chatter on social media, especially from those residing far from where the incident occurred. Some complained about being awakened in the middle of the night only to find that the active situation was 10 or 15 miles away. Posters from as far away as Oak Creek, Bayside, Greendale and Hales Corners chimed in. Some were critical of the Sheriff’s Department for what they deemed as creating unnecessary panic. Others simply complained that their sleep had been interrupted.


 

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One person tweeted and asked if anyone else was going to be exhausted throughout the day because of the “blaring emergency alert.” Another tweeted that the alert had given them a “completely unnecessary adrenaline rush.” And yet another complained that the alert hadn’t been “fine-tuned a little” to be received by only those residing in the immediate area.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office posted on Twitter later Wednesday morning that it doesn’t manage the emergency alert systems. That duty falls to the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Cassandra Libal, director of the Office of Emergency Management, explained how the alerts work and who they get sent to in a statement sent to Milwaukee Magazine.

“The Office of Emergency Management’s priority in situations where public safety is at risk is to get pertinent information out quickly to the people who are primarily affected and immediately at risk. The technology currently in use does not allow us to geographically target messages to specific neighborhoods throughout the county. This is a FEMA regulated program and we are working with them and our software vendor to address the issue.”

Since the incident occurred in the early morning, just hours before school children and other residents would be starting their morning commutes, the Office of Emergency Management sent the message to the entire county “out of an abundance of caution,” Libal explained.

“We do not intend to send alerts outside the County, but there is potential for alerts to be sent to cell phones just outside of the county. However, that is contingent on the cellular provider and location of cell towers and is not a decision made by the Office of Emergency Management,” she stated.

The office sends alert messages to cell towers, which then relay them to phones in the area.

“This morning’s incident was a tragic circumstance in which an officer was injured, and another person lost their life,” Libal wrote. “The Office of Emergency Management has worked diligently today to keep the public safe and inform residents on what was an on-going situation throughout the morning.”

She warned residents not to change the settings on the phones to block alerts.

“Although the process is not perfect, we would caution that residents should not turn their alerts off as they are potentially life-saving,” she said.

Social media channels buzzed again later Wednesday morning when a garbled message was sent out before the office issued a corrected all-clear alert.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas expressed his gratitude to those who abided by the alert.

“I extend my appreciation to the residents and business owners who cooperated with this morning’s shelter-in-place order and helped ensure public safety during the investigation,” Lucas said in a statement from the Sheriff’s Office issued Wednesday afternoon.

A Sheriff’s Department spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment about the alert. However, the statement indicated that the shelter-in-place alert was issued “given the importance of ensuring public safety.”

According to the statement:

At 2:08 a.m., a Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputy attempted to make a traffic stop of a vehicle for a registration violation in the area of West Adler and South 68th streets. The deputy who initiated the stop requested assistance. As additional deputies arrived, the driver and passenger fled the vehicle. The driver was taken into custody after a brief foot pursuit near the on-ramp of Interstate 94 at 68th Street.

 

Sheriff’s deputies and officers from the West Allis Police Department assisted in the search for the second subject. Shortly after 3 a.m., a deputy observed a man climb out of a garbage bin in the area of West Adler and South 64th streets. As he was approached by a deputy, the subject displayed a gun and fired at the deputy, striking him several times in his torso and both arms.

 

The deputy was transported to a local hospital, where he is being treated for his injuries, which don’t appear to be life-threatening. Sheriff’s deputies and officers from multiple surrounding agencies began searching for the shooting suspect. Law enforcement officers eventually encountered a man crouching behind a vehicle near South 60th and West Main streets. After a verbal engagement, the deputies and officers heard a single gunshot and then found the subject on the ground after apparently sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

 

At this time, law enforcement’s preliminary investigation suggests that this subject was responsible for shooting the deputy sheriff.

“This morning, a courageous deputy sheriff placed himself in harm’s way, sacrificing his own safety to protect our community,” Lucas said. “The people of Milwaukee County should be very proud of this devoted public servant. The prayers and healing thoughts of all members of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office are with our injured comrade and his family as they navigate this challenging time. We wish our deputy a full recovery and extend our strongest support to him.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.