In Louisville, emergency alerts came after the mass shooting. That was the plan.
Courtney Kellner didn’t know about the shooting at the bank on Main Street in downtown Louisville when her phone buzzed Monday with an emergency alert to avoid the area.
She was in her law office on the 18th floor of a building five blocks down the street, sifting through a week of spring break emails and prepping for a busy day of family court appearances when the alert came in shortly before 9:00 a.m.
The message was vague, but jarring.
“It said, ‘Due to police activity, avoid the 300 block of East Main Street until further notice.’ That's it,” Kellner said.
Kellner rushed to check on her colleagues who hadn’t yet arrived, locked the doors and logged into social media looking for more details.
By then, it was all over. A 25-year-old man with an AR-15 style rifle shot and killed five people at the Old National Bank shortly after 8:30 a.m. A Louisville Metro Police officer shot and killed the man within minutes, body camera footage showed.
The alert that Kellner got at 8:56 a.m. came from the Louisville Metro LENSAlert system — an opt-in regional emergency notification system. Kellner said she recently signed up to keep check of violent weather.
Another alert began popping up on phones around 9:21 a.m. This was a wireless emergency alert that came through a system operated by FEMA that can hit virtually any cell phone within a targeted area. According to a database maintained by PBS, city officials set the alert to last for eight hours and it pinged phones throughout the day as people entered the designated area that stretched from Butchertown to the west side of downtown, and south to Broadway.
LPM News and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed more than a dozen emergency alerts provided by readers via social media. Some wondered why the alerts didn’t come sooner, considering the fear that comes with reports of an active shooter in the heart of the city.
Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg acknowledged in a press conference Tuesday the alerts came “well after the situation,” but said that was the point.
The threat was over, he said, and the alert stressed people should avoid the area to keep it clear for police and other first responders.
“That was the immediate focus,” Greenberg said.
Kellner said the LENSAlert did what she expected it would do: It notified her of an emergency situation and led her and others in the office to alter their plans with the intent to stay safe.
“It certainly served its purpose,” she said. “And it was relatively quick.”
But the other, broader, alert came some 50 minutes after the shooting and didn’t provide any new information, she said. By then, she and many other people were following the grim reports on local news and social media.
“It was a little too late,” she said.
How the systems work
Emergency cell phone alerts are a fundamental part of the nation’s emergency preparedness system and can help keep people safe — especially during weather emergencies and natural disasters. They depend on a chain of local officials, federal agencies and service providers.
FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System incorporated cell phone alerts in 2012 and has since broadcast more than 70,000 notifications, according to the federal agency. Many are related to weather events, according to the PBS database.
Jody Meiman, the executive director of Louisville Metro Emergency Services, said Monday was the first time city officials triggered an alert about an active shooter through FEMA’s system.
The delay in sending the FEMA alerts is critical, he said, because the loud siren or vibration the alert sets off could expose someone in hiding.
“We've got to make sure that the scene is secure, the threat is gone,” he said.
Louisville Metro Emergency Services created its LENSAlert system in 2016 and issued more than 640 alerts between 2016-2018, according to annual reports published by the city agency.
Beyond keeping people safe, the alerts also feed people’s desire to know what is going on — which is acute during emergencies, said Rob Dale, an emergency manager in Ingraham County, Michigan.
But active shooter events are tricky, he said.
Unlike weather events, which can trigger automated alerts, local officials must first confirm an active shooter event is actually happening before sending out an emergency alert, Dale said. That takes time and human resources, he said.
Active shooter events are also often over within minutes, he said.
“By the time you’re thinking about it, it’s too late,” he said.
The shooting at the bank in Louisville lasted less than 10 minutes, police officials said. Dale said the threat was over so quickly that local officials were right to issue the alert that focused on keeping people away from the area and out of first responders’ way.
In a different scenario — one where a shooter was roaming the streets, for instance — he said the alert likely would have come quicker and told people the event was ongoing and to hunker down. Or in an event of a chemical spill, Dale said officials could use the alert system to send out an evacuation order.
Officials must be careful when issuing alerts, too, he warned. Too many, and people will ignore them.
“If every time there was a call of a gunshot that we sent out [an alert], you’d be hitting one almost on a daily basis in some cities,” he said.
Residents can sign up for LENSAlerts by texting “LENSAlert” to 67283 or on the city’s website.