The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Staff 

Weather Service alert error under investigation

 


There was confusion, and even a bit of panic, Tuesday morning when the emergency siren system in Seward announced a tsunami alert without the usual “test” language that occurs each Wednesday. Within 30 minutes of the warning, the office sent out another message clarifying the earlier message was only a test. The siren system was followed by emails from multiple agencies and Facebook postings.

Sam Albonese with the National Weather Service in Anchorage said the emergency siren system for the Kenai Peninsula Borough receives messages from the National Weather Service in the form of a code. The code from the Weather Service somehow was received on the borough end as an actual tsunami alert.

“We aren’t 100 percent sure what happened yet,” said Dan Nelson, program coordinator with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management. “The live audio that went out said it was a test, but somehow the siren system did not.”

Nelson said once the National Tsunami Warning Center issues an alert, the National Weather Service sends out a primary message and the borough doesn’t actually send the message. The system is automated and, said Nelson, at least we know the automation works.

“We do have to figure out what happened,” said Nelson, “Because we don’t want people to think of this as a ‘cry wolf’ thing. We don’t want to lose credibility or people won’t take the message system seriously.”

At press time, the National Weather Service and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management are investigating their processes to determine how the coding mistranslation occurred. Albonese said the code sent by the Weather Service was a “test” message, so it is unclear where the problem lies at this time. Albonese confirms that an error in reverse is “not possible.” The warning system would not be able to relay a test message in the event of a “real” tsunami alert because the Weather Service does not have a code for a “test” tsunami alert.

“Within two to three minutes, we were 90 percent sure the alert was false,” said Ron Long, assistant city manager. He said city, fire and police officials were able to confirm within seven minutes that the alert was an error.

Then, city officials requested the borough’s Office of Emergency Management broadcast on the siren system to confirm for residents the previous tsunami warning was an error. In the meantime, City Clerk Johanna Kinney was instructed to send emails using the city’s wide distribution list to help spread the word.

Long said the city has no authority over the current language used for the emergency warning system and this is a problem because the standard phrasing and instructions call for residents to tune into the local radio station. There is no identified local radio station to be used for news and information related to weather alerts.

“The borough has been notified that there is no local radio station,” said Long. “But for now, the message instructs people to use the local radio station.”

Nelson, with the Borough Office of Emergency Management, said the local radio instruction is standard but the alert today has given the borough cause to explore the Seward situation in the absence of a designated local radio station.

Nelson said there are radio stations in Homer and on the Peninsula that monitor alert systems. When an alert is issued, said Nelson, those stations usually then transmit messages. For residents of Seward, Nelson was not sure who would be responsible for radio relay of information. But, he said his office will be examining this issue in an effort to make sure residents are comfortable with the process in the event of an actual tsunami alert.

Locally, radio station KIBH 91.7, is sometimes referred to as our “local radio station,” however, it has not been designated as such and is not fully operational. Diane Hunt, president of the board for KENI and KIBH AM/FM said it is their goal to be designated as the emergency resource for Seward.

“We are working diligently toward that goal,” said Hunt, “but we have run into some roadblocks.”

Nelson said the borough emergency response teams will be working with the National Weather Service to identify the exact cause of the alert system breakdown this morning and to make adjustments to the system for Seward with regard to official instructions to rely on a radio station for safety information.

 

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