County’s tsunami sirens face extinction

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer February 12, 2014 10:19 am

Curry County Emergency Preparedness Director Don Kendall is straddling a fine line between needing to repair tsunami sirens and wanting to maintain and expand the Nixle emergency notification system.

Sirens will become obsolete in a number of years, as more people connect to advanced technology — from iPads to smartphones. Even a simple cell phone can receive alerts from Nixle, a program set up to warn people of various emergencies in their communities.

 

He has no idea how many people have mobile communications devices — cell phones, Smartphones, iPads and other technology — but communication specialists say more and more residents are discontinuing their land-line phone service and going to wireless.

“My top priority is maintaining the Nixle system,” Kendall said. “I’d like to have Nixle tests the same day as the sirens, and once we’re at a good point, then winnow off the sirens.”

Of Oregon’s seven coastal counties, four use sirens to notify people of emergencies. The other three, Kendall said, rely on Nixle, or programs like it that call its participants, similar to a reverse 911 call in which a community’s 911 system notifies all land-line subscribers and sends messages out to all mobile phone holders. 

The triggers for those sirens, however, are situated far off the coast and are initiated when a tsunami generated on the other side of the Pacific passes by, triggering the on-shore devices and giving people about four hours notice to evacuate low-lying areas.

In modern times, however, most people are already well aware — through all the electronic gadgetry available at their fingertips — that a tsunami is on its way.

The sirens along the Oregon coast will do no good when the Cascadia fault slips, releasing a 9.0 magnitude earthquake’s worth of energy, Kendall said.

“The earthquake is your warning,” Kendall said, quoting the local adage about when to evacuate to higher elevations. “There will be no sirens.”

The offshore sirens, he noted, won’t even be triggered until the Cascadia tsunami washes ashore and then back out to sea. And there’s a good likelihood that all power would be cut to them anyway.

It’s not just obsolescence that’s often on Kendall’s mind.

Curry County has 17 sirens, a few of which are usually offline awaiting repair or replacement parts from models dating from the 1960s. Monday, only three sirens were offline — in Crissey Field, Port of Brookings Harbor and one in Port Orford.

It costs $2,000 a month to keep the sirens in functioning order. And when they go down, it’s not as simple as going to the local hardware store and buying replacement wire and sensors.

“Some of these issues just drive me crazy,” Kendall said of repairs. “Something as simple as a little bit of corrosion on a wire will cause it not to work. The electrician goes through the system, says electronically everything’s OK, so we send a radio tech and all they find is there’s a little bit of corrosion that won’t allow a contact — if they find that.

“Or if a repeater is on the fritz by just a little tiny bit, the antennae won’t receive the tone-out from dispatch,” he added. “It’ll receive it on a sunny day, but a rainy, windy day, it might not. There are so many balls in the air at one time.”

The siren at the Port of Brookings Harbor — “It was completely rusted into a ball; it looked like a basketball hanging from the pole,” Kendall said — has been awaiting parts for well over a year.

He has the kit now — plastic, instead of metal; a new $2,000 computer card the size of a keyboard and with a seal on the box to keep moisture out — but it cost $8,000. That doesn’t include the technicians and electricians required to set the apparatus up to its specific requirements.

The ease of Nixle

That’s why the transfer to Nixle would be cost effective and convenient for all involved, Kendall said.

““Eventually we’re going to have to, because of the cost,” he said. “It’s either that or confirm that everyone still wants me to spend that kind of money. It’s a huge dent in the county budget. With Nixle, you only have to have a cellphone.”

And the service is free at Nixle.com.

It is unknown how many cell phones are in service in Curry County, a Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman said, as most firms say that’s proprietary information.

In a remote area where cell phone coverage often disappears a mile off the main highway, communications towers in Curry County are spread about fairly evenly, enabling most people to receive emergency notification.

And, Kendall noted, the farther up a river one is — and often the weaker a cell phone signal — the less likely a tsunami is to affect people.

“You don’t need a super-duper phone,” he said. “All you need is to be able to roam.”

Kendall is currently conducting tests of both the sirens and the Nixle system on the same day of the month, but trying to find that fine line of tolerance, particularly with the Nixle users, so they don’t think he’s calling wolf with too many tests.

Only two of the sirens in Curry County are owned by the county; the others are owned by agencies — fire departments, city halls and ports — that pay for the electricity and maintenance of that equipment.