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ND's first blue alert exposes flaws in state's public alert system

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Ulises Villalobos2 / 2

BISMARCK — A blue alert issued by the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services on Thursday, Jan. 18, revealed problems within the state's public alert system.

The alert was sent to residents' phones across the state for help finding 22-year-old Ulises Villalobos, who authorities said tried to drive over a Bismarck police officer.

The incident happened at 10:55 a.m., but the alert didn't go out until 1:39 p.m.

Alan Dohrmann, NDDES director and adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, said Friday, Jan. 19, that the linked website on the initial alert almost immediately crashed.

"Due to inadequate IT infrastructure, we weren't able to get the message out right away, which was part of the delay," he said.

Another cause for delay was the process of condensing the notification down to the maximum 80 characters they were allowed for crafting the alert.

"Law enforcement would say you wouldn't want to unduly notify the public, so we had to be sure about the situation before issuing the alert," Dohrmann added.

Two alerts were sent, the first urging people to check their local broadcast media and a second that explained the situation.

Social media platforms were flooded with posts from residents confused and concerned about the notification. Few were familiar with this type of alert because it was the first one issued since it was added to the North Dakota public alert system in 2015.

The blue alert was issued because Villalobos was considered a threat to the public and law enforcement officers, enough so that officials decided the public should be notified.

Dorhmann explained that it's a new system and they're still working out the problems that caused confusion for many. "All the right people were here working hard to notify the public, but the efficacy of the blue alert is dependent on whether the public understands what it is," he said.

State officials are working on a potential informational campaign that would better prepare the public for the next time a blue alert is issued. "If there is a silver lining here, the public will be better informed in the future, and hopefully undue anxiety can be prevented," Dorhmann said.

Timeline

10:55 a.m. As Bismarck police officers are helping state parole and probation with a search at 3221 Montreal St. in Bismarck, 22-year-old Ulises Villalobos tries to flee the area. He allegedly tries to drive over an officer, who subsequently fires his gun at the suspect's vehicle.

11:19 a.m. Officers are looking for Villalobos in the area of the 3200 block of Montreal Street.

12:50 p.m. North Dakota officials receive the blue alert request from the Bismarck Police Department.

12:51 p.m. Police find the suspect's vehicle abandoned in northeast Bismarck.

1:07 p.m. The criteria for issuing a blue alert are met.

1:07-1:30 p.m. Before the blue alert is issued, required notifications are made to several agencies, including State Radio, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bismarck Emergency Management and the North Dakota Information Technology Department.

1:39 p.m. The blue alert is issued.

1:40 p.m. A clarification alert is issued.

5:30 p.m. A law enforcement officer possibly sees the suspect's vehicle going north on Interstate 29 and taking the Argusville, N.D., exit.

9:09 p.m. A police officer finds Villalobos behind the counter of a convenience store in Brookings, S.D. Villalobos has blood on his body and clothing. It appears he was shot in the left forearm. He's arrested and taken to a local hospital.

Sources: Bismarck Police Department, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services

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