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Tonawanda ousts employee behind Sept. 11 cellphone alert

Tonawanda ousts employee behind Sept. 11 cellphone alert

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Tonawanda Police Headquarters Emergency Services

(Stephen T. Watson/Buffalo News)

The Town of Tonawanda employee behind the emergency alert urging people to wash their hands that went to cellphones throughout the region on Sept. 11 has lost her job.

Rachelle May, the town's part-time emergency services coordinator, was removed from her job effective Oct. 11, according to a resolution approved at the Oct. 19 Town Board meeting. The reason for her departure is listed as "separation," but no further details were stated.

Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said he could not discuss May's departure because it is a personnel matter. But he confirmed she is the employee he publicly held responsible for the alert on Sept. 11 and she has not worked for the town since then.

And, he said, town residents won't see a repeat of the errant alert.

"It's not going to happen again," Emminger told The Buffalo News. "I'm confident it won't happen again."

May declined comment, but authorized her father, former town Police Chief Jerome C. Uschold III, to speak on her behalf. He said May had acted at the direction of town officials and her punishment was excessive.

"I think she was treated entirely unfairly," Uschold said in an interview.

The alert went out to thousands of cellphones shortly after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, as numerous communities were holding solemn commemorations to mark the 19th anniversary of the terror attacks, and immediately caused a stir.

The "emergency alert" urged recipients to "continue to keep you and your family safe from Covid-19" by following public-health recommendations, including washing hands, wearing a mask, covering up when you cough or sneeze and cleaning frequently touched surfaces. It did not say it was a test.

Emminger and town police soon apologized for the alert.

The town supervisor in a series of tweets said the message went out through the town's Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, or IPAWS, communication service. He said the town's emergency-services coordinator sent out the alert without telling him, police brass or other town officials the message would go out on the morning of Sept. 11.

“Somebody made a mistake. A bad mistake,” Emminger said in an interview that morning, noting residents outside Erie County should not have received the alert.

Emergency-services coordinator is a part-time, non-union position, so Emminger said the town wasn't required to formally suspend May. Instead, the town stopped assigning her work and, effective Oct. 11, ended her employment with the town, he said.

Uschold said his daughter hasn't talked to anyone from the town since Sept. 11.

"They told her not to come in," he said.

May had prepared to send out a coronavirus-related alert after consulting with Emminger, Uschold said.

The state and Erie County were encouraging municipalities to use their social media accounts and websites to promote Covid-19 safety precautions and May suggested sending an IPAWS alert as well, her father said.

"Emminger said, 'That's great, just let me see it before you send it,'" Uschold said. May then sent the proposed text for an IPAWS alert to Emminger by email, Uschold said.

Emminger said he gave May approval to look into sending an IPAWS alert but never gave her the green light to send any specific message at a specific time and day.

Uschold said the message's timing was an error and not intended to diminish the anniversary of the attacks. "She didn't realize it was 9/11," Uschold said.

The town's Emergency Services Bureau is located at Police Headquarters and its budget is included within the Police Department's budget. A department spokesman declined to directly comment on May's departure.

"To balance privacy with the public’s interest to know, TTPD will communicate on personnel matters when we can release information," Police Lt. Joseph Milosich said in an email. "In the meantime, TTPD will continue to focus on public safety."

The town had hired Robert Lutz to assist May at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and he will continue handling the duties of emergency services coordinator, Emminger said.

May is meeting with an attorney in the first step toward a possible lawsuit against the town to challenge her removal from her post, Uschold said.

Even if she made a mistake, the town could have given her remedial training or discipline that doesn't rise to the level of losing her job, he said.

"Do you fire a person for doing something that she got approval to do?" Uschold said.

Her father, for his part, was ousted last summer after four years as chief. His departure followed the arrests of four department personnel within nine months, though Uschold said he was taking responsibility and trying to move the department forward.

Asked whether he believes the same forces that aligned to force him out have now brought down his daughter, Uschold said, "It's obvious to me."

Emminger declined an opportunity to respond.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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