PORT ANGELES — The monthly tsunami siren tests on the North Olympic Peninsula did not go as planned Monday, with an erroneous tsunami warning in Clallam County causing confusion and alarms in Jefferson County that didn’t go off at all.
People in downtown Port Angeles and across Clallam County’s coast heard the sirens begin wailing at about noon Monday, before an announcement in English and Spanish saying “this is a tsunami warning issued for the state of Washington, evacuate to higher ground.”
That was not what was supposed to happen, said Jamye Wisecup, program coordinator for Clallam County’s Emergency Management Unit.
Local and state officials were unsure what caused either of the problems, but the state Division of Emergency Management was investigating the cause of the erroneous message in Clallam County.
Wisecup said the message that people heard wasn’t even the message that would play if there was a tsunami threatening Clallam County.
“That’s not the language we use,” she said. “All of our messaging is scripted so that we have consistency.”
She said had there been an actual tsunami, the alarms would have wailed for 3 minutes before relaying a message that says “this is a tsunami warning, evacuate to higher ground.”
Wisecup said local officials started the test at 11:58 a.m. Monday and that as the Winchester Chimes began, the wailing took over for three minutes before relaying the erroneous message.
“We’re looking into why that was overridden,” she said. “It’s supposed to be Winchester Chimes.”
She said systems do not show the message being generated by Clallam County’s radio operations.
Wisecup said she immediately called state officials to determine whether it was a real tsunami warning and was told no tsunami warning had been issued.
“They wanted people to know they did not need to evacuate,” she said.
A message was then sent over the alarms and at 2:41 p.m., Clallam County issued a press release saying there was no tsunami danger for local residents.
“This monthly test should not include statements of evacuation or other emergency signals that were heard today,” according to the press release.
The message caused confusion for people along the county’s coast. In downtown Port Angeles many people asked others whether it was a test.
Mark Stewart, a spokesperson for the state Division of Emergency Management, said the state is working to determine the cause of the problem in Clallam County, the only county in the state that broadcast the message.
He said a cancellation message was sent promptly over the sirens and that he didn’t know whether the error was caused by the county, the state or another source.
“We’re trying to diagnose what happened,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what happened.”
Stewart was unaware of the issues in Jefferson County.
In Jefferson County, which also had a siren test scheduled for noon Monday, sirens didn’t go off at all, said Todd Morrison, public information officer for Jefferson County Emergency Management.
When told what had happened in Clallam County, he said he is thankful Jefferson County’s sirens didn’t go off.
“Now I feel better that it didn’t go off at all rather than send out the wrong message over the sirens,” he said.
He said the county was testing a new cellphone application provided by the state, a tool developed by the same vendor that developed the computer software used for the sirens.
“It was my job to set it and it did not got off,” he said.
He said state officials with the Division of Emergency Management told him they were working to determine why the sirens didn’t work.
“I’m certain it has something to do with this app,” he said. “If we had used the desktop computer, it would have gone off as planned.”
Wisecup said the incident has her rethinking Clallam County’s outreach efforts, especially after receiving phone calls from people who are upset and concerned.
“I need to rethink how this works,” she said. “If this had been a real tsunami we would have wanted them to evacuate. We’re concerned about the time lag in trying to figure that out.”
Wisecup said the error brought on thoughts of when a warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was mistakenly sent to cellphones across Hawaii in January.
She said people need to be able to trust the systems that are in place and that “there has to be lessons” that come out of Monday’s error.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.