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Accidental alert causes brief panic in Seattle tunnel during Thursday commute

The SR 99 tunnel in Seattle (WSDOT Traffic on Twitter)

Some nervous moments inside the Seattle’s SR 99 tunnel this morning, after an inadvertent emergency warning called for an evacuation.

Mixed bag for first commute with tolling in SR 99 tunnel

KIRO Radio drivers started reporting the emergency message coming over their in car audio system before 8 a.m.

“Was in the tunnel 99 just now and an announcement came across my radio telling everyone to evacuate the tunnel, turn off your engine and evacuate the tunnel,” one of our listeners wrote in a hurried text message.

Listener Holly Frasco was inside the tunnel when the alert sounded.

“It basically said ‘evacuate the tunnel now,'” she said.

The only issue near the tunnel at the time was a stalled car that was blocking a lane northbound near South Lake Union. Bart Treece with the Washington State Department of Transportation said instead of making an announcement on the overhead signs, someone hit a higher level of warning by mistake.

“Inadvertently, we used a higher severity incident protocol, and that included an additional notification to vehicles in there  to evacuate the tunnel,” Treece said.

And while it was alarming to drivers inside the tunnel, there is also a concern that no one inside the tunnel appeared to follow the instructions. Frasco said drivers slowed down, but that was it.

“I noticed that people around me kind of slowed down, but no one stopped,” she said. “It was like one of those things where I didn’t want to be trapped without knowing what’s going on.”

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She was near the end of the tunnel so she just kept going.

How much of  a concern is that to WSDOT?

“The messages are out there for the safety of the traveling public,” Treece said. “In the future if we use that message, we’re hopeful people be engaged and follow the instructions.”

There is a positive to take out of this as well — WSDOT was able to see how the public reacted (or failed to act) to its emergency messaging and make it better in the future. It also gives WSDOT the opportunity to better educate the public on what to expect from emergency messaging. The next time might be an actual emergency.

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