The breakdown in communication on Kodiak following the Nov. 30 earthquake near Anchorage was due to mixed messages about a potential tsunami carried through different systems, according to a presentation by Louise Fode from the National Weather Service.
Fode made her presentation on Wednesday as part of a week-long tsunami operations workshop for local emergency managers hosted by the National Weather Service and Alaska State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
She noted that the Emergency Alert System boils down into a mix of different systems that relay weather-related information to public agencies and residents. However, some systems operate in different fashions.
“This is where a lot of our problems happen with the warning process,” Fode said.
The earthquake that hit Anchorage originally did not trigger a tsunami warning when it was rated at 7.0.
“The Tsunami Warning Center has certain thresholds that they use to make decisions, and when they initially evaluated the earthquake, it was a 7.0,” Fode said. “They said, ‘No tsunami for anyone.’”
She noted earthquake magnitudes are constantly re-evaluated. When the center upgraded it to a 7.2 a short time later, it triggered a tsunami alert.
“If you are at the Tsunami Warning Center when stuff like this is going down, it is hairy, you might only have two people there and you’re calling people in,” Fode said. “The fog of war can definitely change people’s thought processes.”
She said conflicting messages occurred when the earthquake was downgraded to a 7.0 about 15 minutes later.
However, the warning had already been sent out over a wide area. When the local Kodiak Emergency Operations Center received it, it sent out a warning with only a 10-minute window for residents to relocate above the inundation zone.
Fode said the EAS is used most frequently for weather-related alerts. However, it was originally designed following World War II so that the president could send out messages.
“We are talking about a Cold War-era system here and at the time (it was established) we did not send out weather messages over the EAS,” Fode said. “The idea was that if we were heading into a nuclear war, we wanted to let the whole nation know what is happening.”
She said that in 1948, the first tornado warning in the nation was issued via EAS.
Fode said at the time, people could use weather radar technology to track tornadoes and then issue warnings. She added broadcasters began sharing the information on television in the 1950s.
“What good is a warning if no one gets it,” Fode said. “You can’t stay safe if you don’t get the information.”
The current version of EAS was developed in 1997 and is becoming dated, Fode said.
“The same principle still applies as the original,” she said. “It is meant to be a direct line from the president to the public.”
Fode said that the method of sending out a message can be confusing.
The NWS will issue the weather warning from the Tsunami Warning Center or a local weather forecast office for a blizzard, tornado or tsunami.
Fode said there is a direct link from the NWS office to the NOAA weather radio, which triggers the broadcast stations. The warnings also go through the NWS central gateway, or NOAA Weather Wire, and receives something called a Common Alerting Protocol encoding.
“The important thing about that is we are moving forward with our systems and are able to read that CAP encoding to determine what the hazard is, how long it will last and information like that,” Fode said. “When that happens, the warning is sent out to other pieces of software.”
She added it could be a third-party software system, such as the state’s EMNet or Nixle. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also picks up the message on its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.
“IPAWS is the system that triggers cellphone alerts,” she said. Fode said it only sends out a national emergency blast, such as a warning sent on Nov. 30 for the tsunami warning.
Fode said that while communities can participate in the IPAWS system, FEMA makes the final approval on whether a community can access it.
She noted it was a different line of communication than something like the NOAA Weather Radio.
Both the FEMA and NOAA systems send out pre-determined standardized messages that can’t be changed based on specific coding. The coding includes a warning for specific areas and times.
Fode said neither system fits in with the modern desire for personalized information.
“It’s unfortunate that as we move into this era of cellphones, people want something from their individual standpoint but they’re still getting a standardize message,” Fode said. She explained the messages are usually prepared ahead of time, though there can be intense debate over what they should say.
“I think what we ultimately come up with makes everyone unhappy but it’s what we’re going to have to do,” Fode said.
She added that messages are typically sent out over a broad area, but sometimes won’t apply to specific locations.
Fode said the mapping systems that determine how messages are sent out can also cause mixed signals.
Weather information is sent out based on weather zones defined to reflect local weather conditions. Non-weather information is sent out on the same system but is based on census codes.
However, those grids often overlap in Alaska, causing confusion.
“We would have a tsunami warning for the whole area, but maybe in Old Harbor, you would not have the same concern because the tsunami warning is for the other side of Kodiak Island,” Fode said.
Fode stressed the important thing was having one point of contact locally to deliver that message, whether it’s the head of the local Emergency Operations Center or a Village Public Safety Officer.
“Whoever it is, that person needs to get the right information so they can share what goes out to the rest of the community,” Fode said.
She added that despite one standardized message going out, different systems could either shorten them or format them differently.
However, while different lines of communication might be confusing, she said the simple truth was some could fail.
“It’s much better to have five different messages (systems) and if one fails, you have four other ways to get the message out,” Fode said.
She said there are changes coming to the tsunami warning system, including the length of the message sent out to mobile phones.
“We’ve expanded the message a little bit to explain what the tsunami alert is, and it actually tells you to stay away (from low areas) until your emergency officials tell you to come back,” Fode said. “The tsunami could be over but it could still be dangerous in an area.”
The downside is that the longer alert message won’t be compatible with 3G mobile service.
“You’re still going to get the short message in Kodiak even after we implement the longer alert,” Fode said.
She said multiple agencies are working together to redefine the areas that alerts are sent out, but she noted the government process takes time.
“One of the solutions we may end up with could be redrawing some of our weather zones in a way that affects people in the least amount possible,” Fode said. Another thing that could be applied is redrawing warning areas into smaller polygon-shaped zones.
“The warnings would only apply to those smaller areas, like they do with cell phone alerts,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect changes next week, it will take time, but it is an ongoing thing we are working on.”