Warning: Tsunami is only a test

TVs may give viewers wrong idea in preparedness drill

Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A test of state and federal tsunami alert systems planned for Wednesday will use a live warning code rather than a test code, which officials warn could be misinterpreted by television viewers who have the sound turned down, a spokesperson with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week.

NOAA and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, in cooperation with local emergency management offices and the Alaska Broadcasters Association, will test the Alaska and West Coast Tsunami Warning communications system at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday.

The test will involve NOAA’s Weather Radio All Hazard, the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and other state and local links, according to Audrey Rubel, regional communications manager for NOAA in Anchorage.

For radio listeners, this test will sound like the regularly scheduled monthly tests of the EAS — a familiar audio alert tone, followed by a voice message declaring the alert as a test of the system.

But for some televisions viewers, there may be a potentially unnerving twist.

In a press release issued last week, Rubel explained that some television systems are programmed to scroll a standard, pre-composed message based on the emergency code received.

“Because a live tsunami warning code will be used, the message television viewers see may not contain the word ‘TEST,’” Rubel said.

Television viewers may see “Tsunami Warning” instead of “Test.” An audio message accompanying the test will explain that it is a test.

“But if the volume is turned down or otherwise unheard, viewers may not realize the warning is a test,” she said.

“We are doing all we can to ensure the public is aware of the test ahead of time so we do not create confusion,” said David Liebersbach, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “The only way to truly test our warning system is to use the live codes, so it is very important that we involve the public in the test as much as possible.”

The test is part of Tsunami Awareness Week declared by Gov. Frank Murkowski to coincide with the anniversary of the devastating Alaska earthquake on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 that triggered deadly tsunamis.

“The deadly tsunami that occurred in Indonesia illustrates the extreme importance of having a tsunami warning system,” Murkowski said in press release Monday. “When an actual tsunami warning is issued, we have to be ready to give all Alaskans that could be in danger as much notice as possible so they can seek safety.”

“Many Alaskans remember the Good Friday earthquake,” Murkowski said in his press release declaring Tsunami Awareness Week between March 26 and April 1.

That quake, the strongest ever recorded in North America, was centered in Prince William Sound about 75 miles east of Anchorage. Tsunamis generated by the 9.2 magnitude quake killed 106 people.

“Alaska is one of the world’s most seismically active regions, making its coastal areas particularly vulnerable to tsunamis,” the governor commented.

Homer, Kodiak, Seward and Sitka are currently recognized as “Tsunami Ready” through a collaborative program involving federal, state and local officials, according to the governor.

Scott Walden, coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, said Homer and Seward are in the national program, but Kenai is not.

“Only a few communities on the peninsula are tsunami ready because north of a certain region, around Clam Gulch, is not in the tsunami zone,” he said.

To be a Tsunami Ready community requires meeting a host of criteria (they can be found on OEM’s Web site), that includes having well-marked tsunami evacuation routes out of low-lying areas, such as the Homer Spit, and evacuation locations, such as schools on high ground.

OEM will participate in the Wednesday test, serving as, among other things, a place for local residents to report whether they were unable to hear or see the warning on their radio or televisions, Walden said. Agencies and the general public may make reports at www.tsunami.gov/test, or by calling the OEM office at 262-4910.

People wishing to participate in the test may do so by monitoring NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards or over commercial radio, cable TV or local television for the EAS message.

The test will be canceled if there is excessive seismic activity that day.

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