Depoe Bay debates future of Emergency Warning System

Fire Chief Bryan Daniels, of the Depoe Bay Fire District, speaks Tuesday, Jan. 19, with the Depoe Bay City Council about how his department might be involved with future decisions regarding the city’s Emergency Warning System. (Photo by Mathew Brock)

DEPOE BAY — For its first workshop of the year, the Depoe Bay City Council focused on delving into the history of the city’s Emergency Warning System (EWS) and how best to handle its use in the future.

The system was recently activated for the first time since its installation by outgoing mayor Robert Gambino on New Year’s weekend for a high wind warning. The system had previously never been used outside of monthly testing, and the activation was mostly met with confusion by residents who assumed it was solely a tsunami warning system. Newly elected Mayor Kathy Short said that reviewing the system would be a good learning experience for the city and the newly elected council. 

Chief Bryan Daniels of the Depoe Bay Fire District was in attendance and spoke about the effect the activation had on his department, which was inundated with calls from concerned citizens, and due to the holiday weekend, no one could get ahold of city hall staff to clarify the situation.

“Coordination is what we need,” Daniels said. “If we dictate there’s an emergency in the fire district that would affect the city, we would notify the city.”

During the meeting, Daniels entertained the idea of the fire department getting more involved with the system or even taking it over entirely. He requested the department have a seat at any future discussion of how to use the system to make sure the fire district can accommodate and complement any efforts by the city.

“I was under the impression it was a tsunami siren as well, because I remember we used to have a button that said ‘tsunami’ we could press,” Daniels said. “We lost that button for some reason, but we’d like to have that ability back. If we have an emergency, a life threatening emergency, we’d like to follow that protocol and trigger something.”

Councilor Lindsy Bedingfield suggested the council consider simply giving the system to the department, saying it would be a better fit. Daniels said they’d have to do some research to make sure it’d be a good fit, but said he’d explore the option.

Jack O’Brien and Roy Hageman, members of the committees responsible for the creation of the EWS and its protocols, went over just how the current system came to be.

“It started in 2010, about a year before the big Japanese tsunami,” Hageman said. “A group of the old timers in town saw a need for some sort of warning system, not just for locals, but for tourists.”

Hageman said the system was initially envisioned as a tsunami warning system only and was meant to address concerns about how tourists staying at various hotels and motels would be informed if there were a sudden tsunami emergency. He noted there used to be a siren system for the city in an old fire station, but the building was torn down and the equipment disappeared. 

“There was just confusion at the time about who would warn the populace and how,” O’Brien said. “The Coast Guard and the fire department at the time didn’t want anything to do with it, and there also wasn’t any coordination up and down the coast.”

Hageman said after a committee was formed to look into the matter, it found a more versatile system was close to the same price as a specialized tsunami system. The city opted for the more versatile system at around $185,000 in initial costs, but that price was cut some degree by contributions from other entities and volunteered labor for the project.

Hageman added the system was installed and the protocols were about 90 percent in place, but the city administration changed and priorities shifted, so the project was left at the wayside for several years until it was picked back up in 2017 by O’Brien and Gambino.

The three formed the EWS Protocol Committee and used the existing documents from the earlier city council briefings to finalize a procedure and worked with American Signal Corporation to create a set of audio messages to play before sirens chimed to clarify why they were being activated.

The protocol stated the sirens would be activated in the event of a tsunami advisory or warning, high tide, storm surge, high wind advisory or warning, wildfire, earthquake advisory, impassable road conditions and city emergencies affecting most residents and businesses. Gambino previously told News-Times staff that while the protocol said they should be activated under any of those circumstances, he was the first to follow it.

Many residents had never even heard the system until it began audible testing once a month last year using Westminster chimes, a church bell like sound contrasting the usual drone of a siren.

Many who heard the voice message that played before the sirens activated — intended to inform people it was a wind alert — couldn’t make out exactly what was said. But Councilor Fran Recht said during the meeting that the important part was that it caught people’s attention so they could be on alert. 

Recht also stressed the importance of getting supplemental information out to clarify things and suggested the council find a way to make urgent information more readily available, giving several options to do so, from phone trees to neighborhood captains.

Discussion of the system continued, with the council resolving to look into the matter further. Bedingfield said during the regular city council meeting later that evening that she’d support transferring the system to the fire department, noting that she wouldn’t miss costs like the $17,000 the city recently paid to replacement components in the towers.

Following the EWS discussion, Michael Dane spoke about the city’s communications trailer, which can be used to communicate via HAM radio in case of emergencies disrupting normal communication services.

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