On the evening of Saturday, October 27, 2012, many Seward residents were out celebrating Halloween. Pirates,angels,ghosts and other ghouls were abundant.
At 7:04 that evening, miles away in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake was occurring.
At 7:16 p.m. AST, the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for coastal areas of British Columbia from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska. The tsunami warning was later downgraded to an advisory at about 10:30 p.m. AST .
Many Seward residents were concerned when the tsunami warning went out over their cable channels; but the tsunami sirens had not sounded. Was Seward in danger of a tsunami? Word quickly went out through Seward City News, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that the tsunami warning did NOT include Seward. Residents could go on with their Halloween festivities; no wave was expected.
For some residents, there was confusion about the current warning. Weren’t the sirens supposed to sound in the event of a tsunami warning? Part of the confusion was created, in part, because the tsunami sirens had sounded twice in the past two years when tsunami warnings were issued. Fortunately, no waves were generated and the warnings were canceled.
On the evening of Saturday, October 27, 2012 the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning. Why hadn’t the sirens gone off in Seward this time? What had changed?
I sent an inquiry to Mr. Jim Hunt, Seward City Manager: would he be willing to discuss the tsunami warning system for a Seward City News article? Was the tsunami warning system working as it was supposed to?
Unfortunately, because of a last minute scheduling conflict, Mr. Hunt was unable to attend. Mr. Eddie Athey, Assistant Fire Chief of the Seward Volunteer Fire Department, was available and agreed to answer my questions.
Brent: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today on such short notice.
Were you aware that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a web page dedicated on what to do in the event of a zombie invasion?
Eddie: I had heard that.
Brent: Do you think that Seward is prepared in the event of a zombie invasion?
Eddie: (with a chuckle) I’ve never been asked that before. Yes, Seward is well prepared to react and respond to a variety of natural and “unnatural” disasters.
Brent: On the evening of 6/24/11 there was an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. A tsunami warning was sent out. That warning was not received until 1 hour and 20 min after it was issued. When the warning was canceled, the sirens then activated. What has been learned from this event and what has changed since then?
Eddie: At that time, Seward was in advisory mode. Sirens only go off in the event of a tsunami warning. The tsunami warning center was attempting to cancel the warning, but instead someone hit the system wide activation code. Basically human error. When the tsunami warning system was first installed, one code (a FIPS code*) activated all sirens . Since then, the tsunami warning system has been refined so that each region of Alaska can be activated separately.
Brent: On October 27,2012, there was a large earthquake in the Queen Charlotte Islands, BC. A tsunami warning went out over the cable channels . The only information that many people received stating that Seward was NOT affected was through Seward City News, Facebook, and other social media. What mechanisms are there in place to get information out to people in the event of such false alarms and other malfunctions?
Eddie: There are several mechanisms:
An announcement could be projected over the siren system.
We ( emergency responders) can activate the reverse notification system, through our dispatch, the Kenai Peninsula Borough or Soldotna dispatch. Anyone can go to the Seward city website and sign up to receive community alerts .
I don’t believe anything was initiated on this occasion because Seward wasn’t included in the tsunami warning. The message went out over the cable channel because GCI (or any other broadcast agency) doesn’t have the ability to limit the message by region, so it went out to all.
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is the mechanism that broadcasters and cable operators use to send a system wide alert, whether it be for a national, state or local emergency.
Also, our fail safe plan is to send fire trucks and police cars to the neighborhoods, making announcements over their PA systems to either warn residents (if time permits) or give the all clear.
Brent: After the new tsunami alert system was installed state wide, the City of Homer found that while the sirens could be activated remotely by the borough, the City Police Department could NOT activate them. Has the Seward system been tested for both local and remote activation?
Eddie: Yes-following this event in Homer, testing was initiated in Seward. The system worked and projected voice without any problems.
Brent: In the event of a tsunami warning, who locally has the authority to activate the sirens should they not sound automatically?
Eddie: The sirens should only activate in the event of a tsunami warning (tsunami projected ) for the Seward area. When NOAA or the National Weather Service sends the FIPS code for Seward, the sirens should activate.
The Seward Police Department dispatchers have standing orders that, in the event of an earthquake lasting greater than 20 seconds, or if the earthquake is making it difficult to stand, dispatchers will manually activate the tsunami sirens. The motto is: Don’t wait-activate. In the event that either of the two criteria is not met, the city manager, (or their designee), the police chief (or their designee), and the fire chief (or their designee) have the authority to activate the sirens.
Brent: The pre-recorded message says “tune to your local radio station for news and information”. Exactly who or where is our “local” radio station? And with the stations automated, how is information going to be relayed?
Eddie: Our“local” radio stations are automated from remote sites and then rebroadcast in the Seward area. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has worked on this project and has contact information for the station managers to get information broadcast via radio.
Brent: The schools are designated as evacuation points. When a tsunami warning on 2/27/10 was issued, and the sirens sounded, many heeded that warning and went to the schools. Many reported that they never received any all clear message, and just headed back home after a while. How is the all clear signal relayed?
Eddie: This has been identified as a problem with the last two soundings of the sirens. No all clear went out. It wasn’t an “event”, so it didn’t activate a response here in Seward. It is now on the checklist to notify people when all clear. It was also identified that no one from emergency services was at the evacuation shelter points. This step has now been put the check list. Personnel will be dispatched to the evacuation points to give the all clear.
Brent: thank you for meeting with me today, especially on such short notice. Do you have any closing comments?
Eddie: I would urge all residents to be prepared, and know what to do in various emergency situations.
*The FIPS county code is a five-digit Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) code (FIPS 6-4) which uniquely identifies counties and county equivalents in the United States, certain U.S. possessions, and certain freely associated states. The first two digits are the FIPS state code and the last three are the county code within the state or possession. ( Wikipedia)