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Suncor emergency alert wakes people up to assure them there's 'no emergency'

The alert sent by Adams County's dispatch center warned of flaring but no threat.

COMMERCE CITY, Colo — Phones blared around 4:30 a.m. Sunday with a word a community has learned to distrust: Suncor.

But a wireless emergency alert sent to all cell phones in a roughly 18 square mile area didn’t warn of an emergency. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

The public safety alert warned, “Suncor refinery will have excessive flaring visible, there is no emergency.”

“It's an alert from Suncor, which you know, if you live in North Denver, or Commerce City, it's kind of a specter hanging over your head of, 'What is Suncor doing right now?'” said Jeff Ruane, who said he jolted awake with his wife when the message came through.

“My first thoughts were 'Oh, no, something's wrong at Suncor, this is scary,'" he said. "And then my second thought was, 'Why did you wake me up for this?'”

Suncor is required by state law to notify the public about emissions of some toxins that exceed state and federal levels using an opt-in emergency alert system, more commonly referred to as a “reverse 911 system.”

But the message sent Sunday morning came through the federal Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, a tool federal, state and local emergency managers can use to send messages to all cell phones in a specific area. And though the message was specifically about the Suncor refinery, it was sent by Adcom 911, the emergency dispatch center for Adams County, which serves as the county’s alerting authority to use the WEA system.

A supervisor with Adcom 911 said Suncor requested the alert. 9NEWS asked if the dispatch center has any written policy about sending messages on Suncor’s behalf – but was told an administrator would have to respond when they return to the office on Tuesday.

State air pollution regulators told 9NEWS that the alert was sent “in error,” according to the company.

A spokesperson for CDPHE wrote:

The state health department’s Air Pollution Control Division contacted Suncor about the weekend community alert. Suncor informed the division it experienced a mechanical issue early on Nov. 19, 2023. Suncor also informed the division that the emergency alert was sent in error. For additional information, please contact Suncor directly.

Division staff will continue to have conversations with Suncor about ways to improve its notification system. The division is committed to continuous improvement and keeping local communities informed about air quality.

On Tuesday, a Suncor spokesperson responded to a request for comment from 9NEWS.

They spokesperson wrote in an email, "The emergency alert issued on Sunday morning was sent in error. The flaring referenced in the alert was not an emergency, and was resolved that night. Suncor will be working with the alerting authorities to ensure that such alerts are not issued for non-emergencies in the future."

Experts in emergency alerting questioned the use of a WEA for Sunday’s message, which didn’t require any immediate action, say an opt-in alert may have been a better option.

“WEAs are really disruptive, they're intended to wake people up from a deep sleep to alert them to a significant threat or danger in their area that they need to respond to immediately,” said Dr. Jeannette Sutton, an alerts and warnings researcher at the University of Albany.  “Something that is not threatening like what is described in this message is not necessarily the thing that you want to use your communication capital on.”

“You have a limited number of opportunities to connect with people over a channel like we had before people will lose the willingness to keep it turned on,” she said.

Suncor last used its opt-in emergency alerting system on September 3 to warn of a similar situation, more visible flaring that didn’t indicate an emergency. You can sign up for that system to be alerts of events at the refinery by clicking here.

PBS WARN, a database of WEA messages, showed Adams County had not sent a WEA about Suncor until Sunday.

More from 9NEWS on emergency alerts:

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