Borough works on kinks in emergency response system

Emergency managers across the Kenai Peninsula are working on patching gaps in the notification network made evident by January’s tsunami threat.

On Jan. 23, many Kenai Peninsula residents got a rude awakening as a 7.9-magnitude earthquake rattled Southcentral Alaska. A few minutes later, most people received a blaring alert warning them of a tsunami. The potential wave mostly posed a threat for low-lying coastal communities, including Seward and Homer, but even residents in Soldotna, Kenai and Kalifornsky received the warning. Some began packing bags, too, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Program Manager Dan Nelson.

“There was definitely some confusion from the public — we were getting 911 calls in, overwhelming our 911 center there briefly as people were trying to get the word out and find out more information,” Nelson told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday.

However, a number of people didn’t receive the alerts at all. Unlike the larger cell phone carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, Alaska carrier GCI doesn’t automatically send its users emergency alerts.

The company, like many of the smaller telecom companies across the U.S., has not been able to implement the infrastructure to send automatic emergency alerts out. The Federal Communications Commission, which instituted the requirement, issued an extension for GCI through spring 2019, and the company has a team working on the fix, said spokesperson Heather Handyside.

“We’ll definitely get it done this year,” she said. “We have a team of about 10 people who have been working on this project very intensively.”

Until they do, GCI users can download an app as a workaround and manually sign up for alerts. The app is available through the Google and Apple app stores and is free, Handyside said.

In addition to the push notifications on cell phones, the borough maintains an automated voice calling system called Rapid Notify. That system calls phones with a prerecorded message. However, on the night of the earthquake, some people received phone calls with no message, or didn’t receive phone calls in time.

Nelson said the borough has had Rapid Notify in place for about 20 years and the system was designed primarily with landlines in mind. These days, people rely increasingly on cell phones. Around 2014, when the Funny River Fire threatened Soldotna, Kenai, Sterling and Kasilof, the borough started getting more and more people with cell phones signing up for notifications, Nelson said.

“Once that started running, we weren’t able to geographically drill down as far as the cell phones and things,” he said. “So all those cell phones that were registered, due to some system issues at the time, we weren’t able to just delineate Seward or just delineate Homer. So to be conservative and try to get the message out to as many folks as possible about the accurate risk, we had to send the message out to all the registered cell phones on the peninsula as well as the landlines that were in those tsunami code areas.”

The velocity of calls was very low and the volume was very high, Nelson said. More than 10,000 calls were placed that night, leading to errors, he said. The reason for the audio wasn’t clear, he said.

Nelson said the borough is considering switching vendors for the Rapid Notify system to fix some of the problems. He said he’s reached out to the telephone companies to find out whether their switchboards can handle the call volumes in emergency situations.

One of the tricks to fixing the system is making sure the notifications are geographically relevant. Nelson explained that the way the notifications go out are in codes, and the Kenai Peninsula is all one code, so everyone in the borough received it. The FCC recently passed rules requiring those notifications to be more accurate

“We’re doing some improvement of public information, trying to get some interactive tsunami mapping, just like the parcel viewer is used on the GIS website now,” he said.

Nelson said most of the emergency response was successful but they are trying to work out the kinks.

Assembly member Dale Bagley made the point that it was better to cast the net broadly in terms of notification on cell phones. Although someone’s cell phone may not be registered in Homer, they could be visiting there on the night of an emergency, he said.

“If you’re getting cell phone alerts, I don’t have any problem with them going out to lots of different people, because you never know where they might be,” he said. “The more information that can be provided to those people and where the hazard areas are, the better.”

Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area Fire Chief James Baisden said he was concerned about the emergency coordination because if the earthquake had been closer — say off Nikiski instead of nearly 175 miles southeast of Kodiak — the community would not have been prepared. He urged people to have emergency kits and backup plans ready.

“If it would have happened here, all these devices that we think are going to be working aren’t going to be working because our cell system is pretty fragile when it comes to this,” he said. “We want to make sure that communities that are doing the training and doing the work to prepare for this, you personally have a responsibility to make sure you and your family are ready for this because you think we’re coming to help you, we’re not. We’re going to be overwhelmed.”

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