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Officials provide clarity on emergency phone alerts after deputy is shot

The Office of Emergency Management sends the message to cell towers which then send the messages to phones in the area.
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Posted at 3:23 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 19:35:28-05

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee County's Office of Emergency Management is providing clarity after an emergency alert woke up thousands of people early Wednesday morning after a deputy was shot.

The "shelter in place" was issued just before 4 a.m. and is a type of Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). A WEA also may come to your phone in cases of severe weather or for Amber, Silver, and Green Alerts.

The sheriff said a lieutenant on duty made the decision to request the alert to assist in their effort to find the shooting suspect. The sheriff's office did clarify that the alert was a notice, not an order.

According to the Office of Emergency Management, the Wednesday alert was sent to the entire county out of an abundance of caution since it happened in the early morning, just hours before school children and other residents would be starting their morning commutes.

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The emergency alert

However, TMJ4 received reports of the alert going well beyond county lines. Residents of Mequon, Cedarburg, Shorewood, Oak Creek and even Racine said they received the early morning alert.

“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," Director Cassandra Libal said in a statement. "The Office of Emergency Management sends the message to cell towers which then send the messages to phones in the area."

According to Andrew Beckett, a spokesperson with Wisconsin Emergency Management, because "cell phone towers aren't always set up on county borders or municipal borders... it's entirely possible that when an alert goes out county-wide, it may reach into neighboring areas."

The WEA system is managed by the federal government and works directly with cell providers. Local authorities have the ability to operate as 'originators' and send out alerts.

In Wisconsin there are 35 entities that can send out the alerts. Various state agencies have the capability as do several counties, including Milwaukee County.

"The area that they're able to alert is really dependent on their alerting authority. At the county level, usually they're within that county," Beckett said.

Beckett said the system has the ability to send out alerts county-wide or to pinpoint more specific areas.

For example, Silver Alerts sent by the Department of Justice target a five mile radius around where the missing person was last seen.

But Beckett also said there are variations in the software that may present limitations to what a county can do.

Libal said the technology used in Milwaukee County does not allow officials to geographically target messages to specific neighborhoods. However, Libal said the Office of Emergency Management is working with FEMA and their software vendor to address the issue.

Officials also urge you not to silence the alerts on your phone.

"I understand that sometimes they can come at inopportune times, but if that alert is sent in the middle of the night and there's a tornado in your area, you're going to want to get that alert so you can reach safety as quick as possible," Beckett said.

Just before 11 a.m., the sheriff's office announced the shelter and place notice is no longer in effect.

Another alert was sent to phones appearing to contain a draft WEA alert. A third alert was sent after, more clearly stating that the notice had ended.


The sheriff's office tweeted following the alerts, "Please note that MCSO does not manage Milwaukee County's emergency alert system and is not able to address concerns regarding the recent alert that did not contain substantive content. The county agency that administers this system has since issued a corrected all-clear alert."

3rd alert

The incident began just after 2 a.m. when a deputy attempted to make a traffic stop of a vehicle with a registration violation near West Adler and South 68th streets.

The deputy called for assistance, and as reinforcements were arriving, the driver and the passenger got out of the car and tried to run away.

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The driver was taken into custody. The passenger suspect was spotted around 3 a.m. near Adler and 64th.

Authorities created a perimeter and deputies encountered the suspect on Dixon.

The sheriff's office said that's when a deputy approached the suspect and the suspect revealed a gun and fired at the deputy, striking him several times in the arms and the torso.

The deputy was brought to the hospital and is expected to survive.

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Scene of the shooting

The 26-year-old deputy has been with the sheriff's office for about 18 months, the sheriff's office said.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office announced in an update that a man authorities found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound appears to be the person who shot the deputy, citing a preliminary investigation.

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