Local News

Tsunami warning test too real?

Thursday morning’s (3-27-14) live test of the state’s Tsunami Warning System went pretty well — except many people didn’t realize it was a test.

Most of us are accustomed to hearing the words “This is a test” with the routine monthly broadcasts. This message however, was triggered using so-called “live codes.”

Jeremy Zidek is the public information officer with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“The live code has a little bit different message that is broadcast over televisions and radios. It really enables us to see the reach and effectiveness of those live codes before there is an event that happens.”

The test — at least as heard over coastal public radio stations — gave a rundown of warning areas. It was eerily similar to what we heard following the earthquake in January 2013 — because it was that message, more or less.

According to Joel Curtis with the National Weather Service, the message that was broadcast was an actual warning “template,” which overwrote the warning message composed for the live test.

In short, it was a software error.

And errors, says Jeremy Zidek, are what the tests are designed to discover.

“Every year when we test the live codes we do find anomalies, some places where we do need to improve the system. But that’s the purpose of the test.”

The live test was targeted at coastal communities — and that part of the test worked — except for receiving the same alarming test message.

In Sitka, the test was followed-up by a call burst from the Code Red system in the Police Department, reassuring residents that the tsunami warning message was just a test.

The annual live test has taken place for the last several years on the anniversary of the 1964 Alaska Good Friday Earthquake, which killed 131 people — 116 of them in the subsequent tsunami.

For the 50th anniversary of the quake this year, public safety officials conducted a day-long preparedness event called “Alaska Shield.” Fourteen communities participated, along with the Alaska National Guard, active military personnel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and numerous state agencies.

The live Tsunami Warning Test was the kick-off for a pretty big day, says Zidek.

“The exercise is really focused around an event similar to the 1964 event — a 9.2 earthquake — and the impact that type of event would have in today’s built environment.”

So, the fact that the live test message got our attention may have actually been a good thing.
Said meteorologist Joel Curtis, “At least the message, however poorly it was constructed, was heard by an awful lot of people along the coast. We’re pretty happy about that.”

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