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Tsunami warning that wasn’t: Alaska emergency authorities investigate test that went awry

PALMER — The National Tsunami Warning Center issued what officials considered a routine communications test at 7 a.m. Friday.

Within minutes, it was clear the test was anything but routine.

People watching TV or listening to the radio heard what sounded like a legitimate tsunami warning extending from California to Hawaii and Alaska.

Travis Neff was driving to work Friday morning, listening to an interview about North Korea on NPR, when an alarming warning broke in.

"At that very moment the alert system began. 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," Neff said in an email.

There was only a brief mention of "test message" at the very end of the automated warning, he said, only after a list naming almost every coastal county on the West Coast and Alaska — plus Anchorage, said to be out of reach of all but the most locally generated waves.

The test warning didn't reach the public in Oregon, Washington, California or British Columbia. Only those in Alaska.

Officials say a preliminary investigation showed the state's emergency alert system took what was supposed to be an internal test and broadcast it live as a warning. The Emergency Alert System transmits to media outlets and emergency officials.

Social media immediately started flickering with dire reassurances: that real-sounding warning was just a test.

The city of Ketchikan issued one saying the tsunami warning broadcast issued at 7:02 a.m. "was supposed to be a test there is NOT a Tsunami Warning for our area!"

The devices that send out emergency messages coded the test as an alert, so the information was fed out automatically, several station managers say.

The agencies involved are investigating what happened.

A state emergency spokesman initially said 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 a Florida-based vendor called ComLabs.

But Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, later said 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 with ComLabs to find out what happened, Zidek said.

ComLabs did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Aggrieved radio station managers and citizens likened the glitch to the false missile warning that paralyzed Hawaii in January, attributed to human error.

But Zidek said it was too early to say if the push of a button caused Friday morning's brief panic. Alaska also uses a different kind of emergency notification system.

State emergency operations officials immediately notified all tsunami-vulnerable communities as well as Kenai that no warning was in effect, he said.

The test message didn't go out to the public via any communication channels operated by the National Weather Service, according to an alert posted by the U.S. Tsunami Warning System.

Messages didn't go out to cellphones or via weather radio. No sirens sounded in tsunami-vulnerable places like Seward or Kodiak.

But the phones at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer were ringing "off the hook" in the two hours after the alert went out, said Chris Popham, an oceanographer at the center.

That's how officials at the center found out there was even a problem, Popham said.

"Nothing different happened in this office," he said. "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."

The five Southeast public radio stations that operate as members of CoastAlaska Inc. heard staffers get "immediately on air as soon as they got confirmation from the state," said CoastAlaska's director of engineering, Rich Parker.

Mike Chmielewski, chief operating officer for nonprofit Radio Free Palmer, said he called the nearby tsunami center after the message sounded and learned there was no tsunami.

Chmielewski got on the air and said the warning wasn't real but expressed concern listeners may dismiss future warnings.

"The danger, of course, is the system is designed to alert people," he said. "If there are too many false alerts …"

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