With tsunami warning, elements of Alaska’s Emergency Alert System failed to work as intended

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - When a magnitude-7.9 earthquake Tuesday morning prompted a tsunami warning across Alaska's coastal communities, elements of a statewide emergency alert plan failed to trigger as intended.

“The National Weather service sent out four messages to the Kodiak and Homer area,” said Dennis Bookey, co-chair of the Alaska State Emergency Communications Committee. “Stations re-broadcast the first message but were not rebroadcasting the second, third and fourth for a technical reason that we’re still researching.”

[Kodiak weathers tsunami scare]

Bookey said the National Weather Service is working to determine what went wrong, while the Alaska Broadcasters Association is asking television and radio stations to report on how the alert systems worked in their markets in hopes of preventing future hiccups.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is an alphabet soup of acronyms and complicated, overlapping communications roles.

The EAS is a federally mandated system that allows the president to address all regions across the country in the event of a national emergency. The system is also used – as in this case – at a local or regional level to broadcast information about weather emergencies such as tsunamis.

The EAS system works in conjunction with a system called the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) that is meant to unify various emergency broadcast systems such as EAS and the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system that pings smart phones with mobile alerts.

[Many Alaskans wondering why they're left out of mobile emergency alerts]

“We have this challenge here in Alaska of communicating across this wide area, these emergency messages very quickly,” said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “Whenever we test the systems we identify problems.”

The systems are meant to act redundantly to ensure messages reach threatened communities even if one or more system fails. On Tuesday morning, one leg of the stool – weather service radio – held strong, while two – the IPAWS server administered by FEMA, and the state’s distribution system called EM – were shaky.

“The primary way it (the alert) should have been initiated didn’t happen,” Zidek said. “That’s why there’s redundancies built in.”

Here are excerpts from a KTUU conversation today with Bookey, who we asked to describe the problems with the Tuesday alerts.


BOOKEY: “We’re going to take all the time in the world to study what did work, what didn’t work, make changes that are necessary. And there’s nothing more valuable than a real world event to figure out how to improve something.”

“Juneau worked flawlessly …. We had no missing National Weather Service messages in Juneau and Sitka. Southeast worked very well."

KTUU: Where did the missing alerts occur?

BOOKEY “Just Kodiak, Homer. And Kenai. We didn’t have them skunked. We just didn’t get all of them.”

KTUU: As a layman, that seems significant given that those are places that would be very susceptible to a tsunami.

BOOKEY: Well, yes and no. The intent of the emergency alert system is to be a warning system to get people in gear. To get additional factual information … It’s not its mission to give all the information in the world. It’s to wake you up if it’s 12 midnight. It’s to get you going. And from that standpoint, the EAS system worked as designed."

But we want to take it further and make sure that things like wave arrival times get updated. And that needs to work better."

“The National Weather service sent out four messages to the Kodiak and Homer area. Stations rebroadcast the first message but were not rebroadcasting the second, third and fourth for a technical reason that we’re still researching. When I say we, that’s the national weather service that’s researching. … That’s where things didn’t work as designed.”

“The backup to that is also the EM Net system and IPAWS, which didn’t kick in, which is, this is critical enough that there’s three layers to it. So, it still worked. But we should have multiple sources that came through.”

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