Florida ending contract with software firm blamed for early morning test alert

State officials said a company called Everbridge is responsible for an emergency alert test at 4:45 a.m. Thursday that wasn’t supposed to go to cellphones.
Floridians' phones blared to life about 4:45 a.m. on Thursday for a test of the state's Emergency Alert System.
Floridians' phones blared to life about 4:45 a.m. on Thursday for a test of the state's Emergency Alert System. [ TONY MARRERO | Times ]
Published April 20|Updated April 21

The state of Florida is ending its multimillion-dollar contract with a software company that emergency management officials said is responsible for an erroneous early morning alert test that blared from cell phones Thursday, rousing and angering Floridians across the state.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management will sever its contract with Everbridge due to the test alert sent out at 4:45 a.m., division spokesperson Alecia Collins confirmed in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Good government identifies errors, corrects them expediently, and holds people accountable when appropriate,” Collins said. “The Division recognizes that this error was unacceptably disruptive and will correct it.”

Collins said emergency alert testing directives come from the federal government, and Thursday morning’s test was supposed to be a test of television emergency alerts. The Florida Association of Broadcasters normally schedules for very early in the morning to minimize disruption because that is when the fewest people are watching TV.

Florida contracts with Everbridge to provide the technical coding and instructions required to push out emergency alerts, and Everbridge sent the wrong technical specifications for this alert, which ultimately pushed the alert over the Wireless Emergency Alert system, Collins said.

The state signed a three-year contract with Everbridge in 2016 for $12 million to provide “a comprehensive suite of mass notification tools,” according to the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System, known as FACTS.

In 2019, the state extended the contract for five years, through 2024, and agreed to pay the company $17.5 million for the extension. The website shows that to date, the state has paid Everbridge $13,742,613 toward that amount.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the company said it regrets “what appears to have been an unfortunate procedural error in this monthly test that we are investigating.”

“As mentioned by FDEM, we too regret the inconvenience this test caused the residents of Florida earlier this morning,” the statement said. “We are committed to the State of Florida and to FDEM as a partner, as we are with all of our customers, to continue to improve and ensure best practices are applied.”

The statement said Everbridge has “a long history” working with Florida and that the company’s system is used by “cities, states, and entire countries around the world.”

The alert of the Emergency Alert System early Thursday emitted the blaring tone typically heard for severe weather or the Amber Alerts sent out when children go missing.

“TEST — This is a TEST of the Emergency Alert System,” the message said. “No action is required.”

But some Floridians did take action — they took to social media to complain and wonder why the test was scheduled for that time. Some who weighed in said they got the alert even though their phone’s settings were set to disable test alerts from the government. That prompted concerns from others who worried that would encourage people to disable all government alerts on their phones, leaving them uninformed in an actual emergency.

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In a tweet sent at 8:40 a.m., the Florida Division of Emergency Management offered an apology.

“We know a 4:45 AM wake up call isn’t ideal,” said the tweet, which included a sweating, smiling emoji. “@FLSERT wants to apologize for the early morning text. Each month, we test #emergencyalerts on a variety of platforms. This alert was supposed to be on TV, and not disturb anyone already sleeping.

“We are taking the appropriate action to ensure this will never happen again and that only true emergencies are sent as alerts in the middle of the night,” a second tweet said.

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in a tweet that the party responsible for the alert “will be held accountable and appropriately discharged.”

About an hour later, a tweet was sent out from DeSantis’ account.

“I’ve ordered FL Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie to bring swift accountability for the test of the emergency alert system in the wee hours of the morning,” DeSantis’ tweet said. “This was a completely inappropriate use of this system. Stay tuned.”

In a 2016 news release, Everbridge announced that it had been selected as the service provider for the development and implementation of AlertFlorida, “a landmark initiative which will provide statewide emergency alert and notification services to Florida residents, businesses and visitors.”

“Ensuring the safety of all Floridians is the Division’s top priority,” Bryan W. Koon, the Division of Emergency Management’s director at the time, said in a statement included in the news release. “The selection of Everbridge as the AlertFlorida vendor marks a milestone toward providing the State’s Emergency Managers with a standardized system to communicate critical emergency information to every resident, business and visitor in Florida.”

The 2016 news release said Everbridge provides communication services to more than 2,700 global customers and that its public sector clients include eight of the 10 largest U.S. cities and all but one of the top 25 busiest airports in North America.

In the hours after the Thursday morning alert was sent, officials urged Floridians not to disable government alerts because it could leave them vulnerable in a real emergency.

“While certainly inconvenient this morning, we STRONGLY discourage you from disabling these alerts on your phone,” the National Weather Service Tampa Bay said in a tweet. “This could mean that you are unable to receive timely severe weather notifications from the @NWS that may mean the difference between life and death.”

Collins, the emergency management division spokesperson, echoed that.

“The Division stresses the importance of being able to receive emergency alerts as disasters can happen at any time and these alerts save lives,” Collins said. “Please do maintain emergency alert notifications on your cellular device — we will ensure they are used appropriately henceforth.”

Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.