Ventura: Glitch causes False Alarm About Dam : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Glitch Triggers False Alarm About Dam

Snafu: Test of warning system leads to panic in west Ventura as malfunctioning computer chip prompts residents to flee the area.

By HOLLY J. WOLCOTT, Special to The Times

VENTURA--An emergency siren system used to notify residents of a collapse at Casitas Dam malfunctioned during testing Saturday and instead issued warnings to flee to higher ground. After the warnings blared from speakers mounted throughout western Ventura about 6 p.m., hundreds of people who live off Ventura Avenue ran for their cars and tried to get away, police said. "They were lined up on the street in their cars trying to get out of there," Ventura Police Lt. Roger Nustad said. "I heard cars were bumper to bumper and there was quite a traffic jam." Ventura Avenue is in the path of the dam, which can hold up to 200,000 acre-feet of water--enough to submerge the street under 10 feet of water, authorities said. To stop the panic, Ventura police dispatched a dozen officers to the area and had them use public address systems mounted in their patrol cars to tell residents about the false alarm. During the incident, alerts in English and Spanish told people to evacuate to higher ground and a loud siren sounded for more than 10 minutes, authorities said. According to Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the state's Bureau of Reclamation, a computer system at Ventura City Hall that activates microchips malfunctioned. He did not know why. The microchips contain information for a test as well as for the real thing, he said. "We are working to ensure this never happens again," McCracken said. "We are working to get microchips that are for test purposes only. On behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation and the city, we want to apologize." According to McCracken, a test of the warning system was scheduled for 6 p.m. and had been widely publicized by media and in fliers distributed throughout the city. When the test started, a recorded voice told residents in both languages that a siren would sound for a few seconds as part of a test. But the siren kept sounding and the warning rolled over into an area on the microchip that issues real alerts. During the malfunction, Nustad said, his department received more than 500 phone calls. The Ventura County Fire Department received about 20 calls. "People were getting afraid," Nustad said.

-- Martin Thompson (, February 01, 2000

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