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Emergency Alert System was delayed during El Paso’s Walmart shooting; why it took 77 minutes

A screenshot of what cell phones across El Paso County received on August 3rd.
A screenshot of what cell phones across El Paso County received on August 3rd.

EL PASO, Texas -- No matter how you were affected, you probably remember where you were on August 3rd, the morning an active shooter entered the Cielo Vista Walmart and took 22 lives.  

“I remember our phones going off with alerts from the police saying to stay clear of the area,” said El Paso resident Jennifer Gurrola. 

“It was just crazy to hear that people that are not even here in El Paso had to notify me,” said El Pasoan Kaitlyn Deguire. 

News of the shooting spread like wildfire, flooding in from endless sources, like social media and the news.  

“We saw all the videos on facebook and everything,” Giselle Hinojose said. 

“We got a very frantic phone call from my sister,” Gurrola said. 

Many were also alerted though the countywide emergency alert system. It can reach cell phones and landlines, and on August 3rd, interrupted television and radio signals. 

“The system is designed to work through every communication medium that that pretty much exists,” said Jorge Rodriguez, the Assistant Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator for El Paso’s Office of Emergency Management. 

He says during the Walmart shooting, their system worked as they expected.

“We've practiced this. We've done a lot of active shooter training,” Rodriguez said. “It was really just putting in into what we already had in practice.”

As that official alert hit screens, information including panic-inducing rumors later proved to be false, had been given 77 minutes of an early lead to spread.

At 10:39 a.m., police say they received the first calls of shots fired. 24 minutes later at 11:03 a.m., El Paso police post their first tweet warning of an active shooter. Three minutes later at 11:06 a.m., the suspected shooter, Patrick Crusius, is detained, according to the FBI. At 11:56 a.m., after Crusius had been in custody for 50 minutes, an alert is sent from the Office of Emergency Management confirming the attack, still asking residents to seek shelter. 

“Part of the emergency operations center, it's not one that staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Rodriguez said. “It was a Saturday, so we were able to staff the emergency operations center within that hour. So that's right, right around the time that we were able to fully staff and get into the system and put that message out.” 

Rodriguez says mass notifications need to be accurate, and the volume of misinformation during the shooting required vetting. He said it is not like a social media post that can be corrected. 

Still, in the days of instant communication, the department relied on social media to get the initial message out. 

“We leveraged some of that social media communications that were being put out by the police department,” Rodriguez said. “They had the best information because they were on scene.” 

El Paso Police had tweeted five times before noon asking the public to stay away. 

The concern is that social media may not reach everyone, especially vulnerable groups. 

For some, in an emergency, no amount of information is ever enough. 

“It's never too much. No, no, no, this is when you feel it. i'll be honest with you, when you have somebody close by and it's part of your family,” El Paso resident Mohamed Khamsi said.  

A desperate need to be informed: making timely, legitimate content, during times of emergency, that much more urgent.

The county also recommends registering for their alert system online here. You'll receive more frequent, and smaller alerts. You'll also have a chance to note any special needs you may have.

Article Topic Follows: ABC-7 Alert Center
emergency alert

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Madeline Ottilie

Madeline Ottilie is a reporter on Good Morning El Paso and co-anchors ABC-7 at noon.


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