Agencies working on alert system

The fastest source of information is not always the best source.

When there’s an incident at a school or a spill along a waterway, people want information right away.

In the information age, they turn to social media. Information is there, a lot of it, and update times are measured in seconds.

But there is really no way to determine if the information is reliable. A high-profile source of reliable information saying that police are aware and in control, or, tell people what steps they should take in the case of a real emergency, would go a long way toward helping people respond appropriately to rumors.

That source – a Facebook page administrated by the Warren County Public Safety director – could exist as early as next weekend.

After two incidents in a week in which parents were concerned for the safety of their children at Warren County schools, District Attorney Rob Greene asked representatives of law enforcement and media to get together Thursday to think of a way to distribute accurate information.

“The idea is to try to get some way to get information out to the public in a more efficient, accurate, speedier way,” Greene said. “The whole goal is speed and accuracy.”

Cooperation was a key point.

“We have to work together as a community,” Youngsville Borough Police Chief Todd Mineweaser said.

“If we do things together, hopefully we’ll make people feel comfortable,” Warren County School District Superintendent Dr. William Clark said. “The school wants to work with everybody. We want our kids to be safe. After that, we can teach them.”

In the example of the school issues, concerned people had a number of places – too many – to look for information. Some sources were faster than others, but not as reliable. The people who took the time to call police or the school district received good information, but it may have taken several minutes. Those who called the schools may have become more frustrated or frightened because officials there were already overburdened with handling the situations and didn’t have the ability to respond.

During an incident at Youngsville High School, “A lot of people were posting on Facebook,” Mineweaser said. “None of them called my office.”

Law enforcement and school district officials had looked into the writing assignment that eventually caused the problem and determined there was no credible threat.

“We knew the situation,” Warren County Sheriff Ken Klakamp said. “We knew things were under control.”

“If we knew there was something going to happen, we’d have had the SWAT team there,” Mineweaser said. “The public can rest assured, if a crime was committed at YHS our agency would have already filed charges.”

Then, a post on social media that showed a portion of the assignment caused a panic.

Mineweaser called it “social media mass hysteria.”

That people look for information online was clear in that incident. Klakamp posted information about it on his office’s Facebook page. “We try to keep the public informed,” Klakamp said. “Over 5,000 people viewed that posting last Friday.”

The result of Thursday’s meeting was that an online clearinghouse for that kind of information could be set up as a Facebook page and headed up by Public Safety Director Todd Lake.

“I don’t have an issue being a clearinghouse,” Lake said.

He and Greene will work on developing a Facebook page and they expect to have something ready as early as April 4.

Klakamp suggested that each police departments and the school district could have a designated administrator for the Facebook page who could publish information directly. Exactly what situations will merit the use of that Facebook page was not established.

“We’re going to have to use our own judgment,” Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Eric McKean said. “Where do we draw the line?”

Lake also suggested that the proposed Warren County Public Safety portion of the Warren County Fire Services website “would be a very good outlet.”

There is also a rumor hotline in the works. Both the fire services website and the hotline are expected to be ready May 1.

The media representatives agreed to link to the clearinghouse for information and generally be responsive.

“As far as the radio, we’re willing to put on any emergency announcement that needs to go on,” Mark Silvis, Kibco Radio program director, said.

The Times Observer representatives said information from the clearinghouse would be posted as breaking news to the newspaper’s website.

In addition to those mentioned above, representatives of Conewango Township Police, Tidioute Borough Police, City of Warren Police, Warren County adult probation, Warren County Jail participated in the meeting.