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Martinez Shell Refinery False Alarm Leads To Sirens, Shelter-In-Place Warning

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MARTINEZ (CBS SF) — Some Martinez residents were awakened Wednesday morning by automated calls and sirens after a false alarm was issued about an emergency at the Shell refinery.

Contra Costa Health Services quickly clarified that there was no emergency, and another round of calls went out notifying residents that the earlier call was a mistake.

The incident comes two days after a massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, and a day after a community meeting at which residents complained about problems with the county’s emergency alert system.

Wednesday morning, the Shell refinery, located on Pacheco Boulevard in Martinez, meant to alert Contra Costa Health Services of a “Level 0” incident at the refinery involving a minor operational issue, Erin Hallissy said.

Instead, around 7:13 a.m., the refinery told Contra Costa Health Services that there was a “Level 3” incident, Hallissy said.

Contra Costa Health Services automatically activates its emergency alert system—which includes sounding sirens and sending out automated calls advising residents to shelter in place—upon receiving a level 3 notification, said Randy Sawyer, chief environmental and hazardous materials officer for the agency.

Hallissy said the false alarm was caused by human error.

There was a miscommunication between two Shell employees, Hallissy said. One employee told another that there was a Level 0 incident, but the other misheard and thought it was a Level 3, she said.

Hallissy would not disclose what repercussions the person who made the false notification will face, but said, “We understand people are human and make mistakes.”

Contra Costa Health Services became aware of the false alarm within minutes, Sawyer said.

The automated call telling residents to shelter in place, which Sawyer said reached about 17,000 people, was halted and the agency began notifying people who already received the call to disregard it.

“There has been an accidental sounding of warning sirens in Martinez … There is no hazardous release and no danger to the public,” the automation said.

Several Martinez residents who were contacted by phone by a reporter Wednesday morning said they had not received the “shelter in place” call and were not aware of the false alarm.

Katherine Hern, manager of the county’s Community Warning System, said the county is continuing to work on ways to better inform people of emergencies. She urged residents to rely on more than one means of receiving emergency alerts.

“Our effort is in public outreach, to urge people not to rely on a single device,” Hern said.

The agency has Twitter and Facebook feeds, and sends out text and smartphone alerts, Hern said.

Monday’s fire at the Chevron refinery was considered a Level 3 incident. Residents of Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo were told to shelter in place. Hundreds of people sought treatment at local hospitals for respiratory concerns.

“Especially with what happened in Richmond, people are sensitive to this,” Sawyer said of the false alarm. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

 

 

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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