On Monday, in the middle of testing the city’s sirens, Unalaska received notification of a large earthquake southeast of Sand Point and a subsequent tsunami warning in communities east of Unalaska to the Kenai Peninsula.
“It was just bad timing, if you will, that we tell everybody, ‘Hey, we're doing some testing,” and then something catastrophic happens where we may have to activate [the sirens],” said Patrick Shipp, fire chief at Unalaska's Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. “And then people are really in limbo [thinking] ‘is it real or is it not real?’”
Shipp said public safety personnel were busy evaluating Unalaska’s seven tsunami sirens when word of a real potential tsunami got out. They stopped performing the tests immediately and rescheduled them for Tuesday.
In hindsight, Shipp said, the department will try to limit how often they conduct tests, so that Unalaskans will know when they hear them, that it’s a real emergency, and avoid a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.
“We don't want to get the public in a lull of every time they hear it they go ‘oh, well they must be testing them.’ When they hear it, we want them to know that they need to move,” he said.
Back in June, following a series of earthquakes near Makushin Volcano, the city conducted an island-wide tsunami siren test. Officials found that only three of Unalaska’s seven sirens — which were purchased in 1996 — were functioning.
But as of Monday’s close call, still only three of the sirens work for sure, one siren “probably” works, one siren sometimes works, and the final two don’t work at all, according to Shipp.
“So the siren on Ballyhoo Road works, Bobby Storrs Boat Harbor works, Carl E Moses Boat Harbor works, and we think we can have the one at PCR working, and the one at Amaknak Fire Station is intermittent,” he said.
The other two sirens — on Standard Oil Hill and in the Valley — don’t function at all.
Shipp said public safety personnel will find out if the siren next to the PCR is functional during the next monthly test, which is scheduled for the second Wednesday of November.
And soon, Shipp said, the city will have fully functioning, modern sirens, with newer technology, louder volume, and a larger range — something the city has been working to achieve for a number of years.
“We've gotten two bids so far to replace all the existing sirens with new digital three-way communications,” Shipp said. “And hopefully in the next two weeks, we'll pick which one of the companies we are going with, and hopefully within the next six months they'll be replaced.”
While Shipp said that’s the ideal timing, things like weather and getting crews to the island could shift that timeline.
John Power, a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, said the Aleutian coastal region will likely always see some level of earthquake activity due to its location along the Aleutian volcanic arc, and it’s important that people in the area continue to take the tsunami hazards connected to that earthquake activity seriously.
“I think being able to get and respond to tsunami warnings is critical,” said Power. “If you look at some of these earthquakes that have happened, like the 1964 earthquake, most of the deaths resulted from the tsunami. And it is very important that we have a good functioning tsunami warning system.”
According to Shipp, getting the island’s tsunami warning system fully functional is “at the top of [the department’s] list right now.”
“Every time we have an earthquake, we think about the tsunami sirens, but we don't always have a true activation,” he said. “I've only been here seven months and we've had one true activation and a pretty close scare on Monday. In my mind, we are pushing this thing forward and going as fast as we can to get these things replaced to protect this community.”
Shipp said the department plans to get rid of the siren at the Amaknak Fire Station and put one instead at the end of Captains Bay Road to ensure that in the case of an actual emergency, anyone on that part of the bay — which isn’t currently being serviced — will hear the call.
“Even if one or two of the new ones fail to work, because of how much better the technology is today, you'll still be able to hear them all over town,” he said.
According to Shipp, replacing the sirens could cost “in the ballpark” of around $250,000. But, he said, they’re hoping to get those costs down.