A discussion Friday morning involving key players in the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program and local officials boiled over with frustration and anger.
Everyone was eager to point at a specific cause for the false alarm that blared across west Umatilla and north Morrow counties Thursday morning. But pointing to a single, specific failure proved difficult.
Instead, city and emergency officials contended the entire CSEPP system was at fault, and they want it fixed.
The emergency siren system sounded at 9:30 Thursday morning, causing many area residents to believe there'd been a disaster involving chemical weapons at the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot.
According to officials at Friday's meeting at the Hermiston Fire Department, some sirens broadcasts verbal warnings in Spanish, others announced in English that it was a test, while other sirens didn't include any message, just a sustained wail.
Message boards along Interstate 84 warned motorists to exit the freeway because of an incident at the depot.
Once the sirens sounded, officials at the depot quickly confirmed that no chemical accident had occurred, but it took much to long to get that message out, many people at the meeting insisted. They pointed to glitches throughout the warning system.
Mayors from surrounding communities, commissioners from Umatilla and Morrow counties, CSEPP and depot officials and many others gathered Friday morning for the debriefing.
Casey Beard, the director of the Morrow County CSEPP, explained that when one of his personnel got the OK from the Oregon Department of Transportation to change a message board to denote weather conditions, the button that activates a chemical hazard alarm was set off.
How this happened can't be explained, he said.
"The two buttons are about four and one-half inches apart, while the person's hand is about three-inches wide," he said.
When some of the sirens went off, the verbal announcements were mixed up because all the new voice chips haven't been installed yet, said Larry Ross, the emergency system manager from Oregon Emergency Management.
"I didn't get the chips out and we got caught with our pants down," he said.
Beard said he used a phone line referred to as an "all-call" line in an attempt to alert all the radio stations, police departments and other emergency officials that it was a false alarm. But some departments didn't receive those calls, or the call was transferred to a commercial line because it wasn't being answered.
Transferring the call to commercial lines only complicated matters, because those lines were jammed with call from the public eager to learn whether or not the alarm was for real. Most dispatchers didn't know that yet.
Because of the lack of information, people in the area reacted, or didn't, in different ways, said Hermiston Fire Chief Jim Stearns. Some people used the preparedness kits, but others reacted the exact opposite from what CSEPP, depot and other officials have been trying to teach.
"The majority of people ignored it," he said. "But the small population that did respond didn't do what they were supposed to do. ... People were getting in their cars and trying to get out of town."
When the reader boards on the highway announced a toxic hazard ahead, hardly anyone stopped and got off at the next exit as directed, said Boardman fire officials.
It took up to 30 minutes for announcements to be made over local radio stations that the alarm was a malfunction.
Because of the problems on all levels, and because the incident is the second accidental activation of the sirens in a year, most of the community officials at the meeting said they are tired of talking about things that need to change but never seem to get done.
"There's definitely pent up emotions in here," said Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty.
He said a lot of the problems in the emergency preparedness structure is on the state and federal levels.
"They have the authority, the control and the resources, but we have the responsibility, so we are held accountable, not them," he said.
Morrow County Judge Terry Tallman said that change is needed, not just at the local level but in state and federal governments as well.
"We've tried to rock the boat," he said. "We have to know how hard to rock it and when, but I think we're going to have to rock it again."