ANCHORAGE, AK—Another emergency warning misstep seems to have occurred — this time in Alaska — when the National Tsunami Warning Center issued a supposedly routine communications test at 7 a.m. on Friday, May 11, that was interpreted as a real warning.
A truncated version of a routine tsunami test message was issued by the center, and then “broadcast as an erroneous warning over the Emergency Alert System in Alaska,” the agency said. According to the Anchorage Daily News, those watching TV or listening to the radio at 7 a.m. heard what seemed to be a tsunami warning for areas all along the West Coast of North America and Hawaii.
Although there was a short mention of a test message at the very end of the automated warning, the message seemed to be legitimate warning for coastal counties on the West Coast of North America, according to reporter Zaz Hollander with the Daily News.
Alaska resident Travis Neff told the Daily News that a warning broke in while he was driving to work and listening to an interview about North Korea on NPR.
“At that very moment the alert system began,” he told the newspaper in an email. “I was dumbfounded. It was such a macabre timing, so I was poised waiting to hear that it was 'just a test' and that never occurred.”
The message apparently did not reach the public in Oregon, Washington, California or British Columbia, and was received only by individuals in Alaska, the paper said. The test message did not go out to the public via any communication channels operated by the National Weather Service, nor were messages sent out over the Wireless Emergency Alert system to cellphones. No sirens sounded in tsunami-vulnerable towns like Seward or Kodiak and no message was transmitted over NOAA Weather Radio.
Chris Popham with the National Tsunami Warning Center told the newspaper that phones were ringing off the hook in the two hours after the alert went out. According to Popham, an oceanographer with the agency, those calls were the catalyst that let officials at the center know there was a problem.
“Nothing different happened in this office,” he told the paper. “We sent out the same test message we’ve sent for decades: ‘This is a communications test.’ We saturate it with ‘test.’ How that got interpreted as any sort of warning or advisory, I can’t say.”
At noon on Friday May 11, the National Weather Service released a statement saying that no tsunami warnings have been issued for Alaska. “There is no tsunami threat,” the statement said.
Agencies involved are investigating what happened.
A state emergency spokesman told the Daily News that the tsunami center coded the message properly as a monthly test and that the problem appeared to start with the state’s emergency communications network, EMnet, operated by Florida-based vendor ComLabs.
But Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told the newspaper that an investigation was too preliminary to determine whether the problem was the coding, the network, or something that occurred at the interface of the two. The state is working to determine what happened, Hollander reported.
The situation is reminiscent of the false missile warning that occurred in Hawaii in January.
Mike Chmielewski, chief operating officer for nonprofit Radio Free Palmer, told the paper that he called the nearby tsunami center after the message sounded and determined for himself that there was no tsunami. He then got on the air and reported to the public that there was no tsunami threat.
A notable downside to all this: Listeners may be compelled to dismiss future warnings, Chmielewski told the paper.
“The danger, of course, is the system is designed to alert people,” he said. “If there are too many false alerts …”
The National Tsunami Warning Center said it is looking into why the test message was distributed over the EAS system as a warning and will provide more information as it becomes available.
Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.
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