This story originally appeared on KTOO Public Media and is republished here with permission.
Wednesday was the annual test of Alaska’s tsunami warning system. Radio and TV stations along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska were expected to broadcast a test of an emergency alert — similar to what you’d hear during a real tsunami.
But some communities didn’t hear it at all, including Homer, Kodiak, Unalaska, Sitka, Ketchikan and Kenai.
Dave Snider, with the U.S. Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, says a combination of technical glitches, along with some confusion, prevented the test from reaching those places. Forecasters in Anchorage failed to pass the message along.
“I think it was just that they were confused about what kind of tests were running,” Snider said.
An abundance of caution
Wednesday’s tsunami warning test was an annual test. It runs every year in March, with the goal of refining the way tsunami warning alerts are delivered to the public.
But when forecasters at the NWS Office in Anchorage received the test signal, they failed to enable the regional Emergency Alert System. So the message never reached radio stations like KBBI in Homer, KMXT in Kodiak or KUCB in Unalaska.
Tsunami warnings in the state follow a complex chain of communication. When forecasters at the Tsunami Warning Center trigger a warning, it goes to NOAA offices like the National Weather Service stations in Anchorage and Juneau. That’s stage one.
When they’re conducting regular monthly tests, that’s where the chain stops.
“But this test was designed to go further than the normal monthly communications tests,” Snider said. “And in this case, the problem is we just need to be more clear about what kind of tests we’re running.”
Wednesday’s warning was a rare kind of test, one where the Tsunami Warning Center tries to simulate a real tsunami threat by jumping into stage two: the Emergency Alert System, which notifies the public through radio and TV broadcasts. And that’s the part that didn’t happen for stations that rely on the NWS office in Anchorage.
When it comes to testing tsunami warnings in Alaska, the team is a bit out of practice, which may have contributed to the breakdown in communication. The annual test has been canceled in recent years when real tsunami threats happened, like the volcanic eruption near Tonga last year and an earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska in January 2018.
Snider also said he believes that past mistakes have caused some hesitation when it comes to sending out test warnings. For instance, in a 2018 incident a routine test activated the Emergency Alert System by accident.
“I think there’s some well-placed hesitation during tests,” Snider said. “Out of abundance of caution, and truthfully, you know, previous years of false alarms.”
Difficulties in decoding
Wednesday’s test also revealed technical failures. Some radio stations received the test message, but their systems were unable to read it.
The Emergency Alert System relies on “live codes,” a form of automated communication where coded messages are deciphered by radio and TV broadcast systems. Some radio stations, including KDLL in Kenai, KCAW in Sitka and KRBD in Ketchikan, received the live codes from the National Weather Service in Juneau. But their systems were unable to decode the message, so it wasn’t broadcast.
Snider says the root of the problem was the fact that the alert was just a test.
“In a normal situation, zero hesitation, everything would have flown out the door,” he said. “I have no doubt that would have worked.”
The challenge is balancing the need for tests with the need to preserve a sense of urgency when it comes to real alerts. If botched tests and false alarms happen too often, there’s concern that the public will stop taking tsunami alerts seriously.
But Snider says the errors from Wednesday will be valuable feedback to fortify the warning system.
“The good thing is that with tests, they’re designed to fix problems before an actual event,” Snider said.
Communities that had problems with Wednesday’s test are encouraged to submit their feedback at www.ready.alaska.gov.