Technology on the side of emergency response alerts

The outdated siren bolted atop the Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue District in Waldport is not functional. (Photo by Cheri Brubaker)

LINCOLN COUNTY — When the big quake comes, the siren in Waldport won’t be sounded. But that doesn’t mean the residents will be left without warning.

Central Oregon Coast Fire Protection District Chief Gary Woodson said the siren bolted atop the fire hall on Highway 34 in Waldport was not working when he joined the department almost three years ago.

“It’s a mechanical siren from the ‘60s,” he explained. “It’s too costly, and we can’t get parts for it. But to my knowledge, the people here know it doesn’t work, as they used to sound it for testing at noon.”

The siren, he said, is obsolete.

“The value of a siren versus the cost to maintain it is not good when you have newer technology for warnings,” he said.

With that new technology, local residents — and everyone in Lincoln County, including tourists — can get specific earthquake, tsunami and other warnings through Lincoln Alerts, the county’s emergency response system.

By registering their phone numbers and pagers with Lincoln Alerts on the county’s Emergency Management website, residents will be notified any time a potential disaster is on the way. And Lincoln County Emergency Manager Jenny Demaris said the county has permission to activate and send a message to cellphones that are turned on.

Woodson encourages everyone to register their phone numbers and opt in to receive phone alerts. Lincoln Alerts receives landline numbers automatically.

The chief was born and raised in the Midwest, where sirens are common though the salty ocean air is not. But even the sirens set up to warn about tornadoes now have electronic alerting systems, he said. And those siren alerts can still be ignored if the tornado is not visible.

Woodson said that, unlike setting off a traditional siren, Lincoln Alerts will send a text message saying exactly what the warning is for, rather than a siren resulting in “a big noise going off.”

Yachats also does not rely on a siren. While the Yachats Rural Fire Protection District has a siren on the old fire hall in town, it has not been in use for several years, according to Shelby Knife, assistant to the district administrator. He said there are no plans for using the siren or moving it to the new fire station.

Kimmie Jackson, deputy city recorder in Yachats, noted the city itself does not have a siren.

And Newport does not have, nor has it had any warning sirens.

Other Lincoln County towns do have working sirens.

Lincoln City has four, all in working order; two are maintained by the city and two by North Lincoln Fire & Rescue.

Ed Ulrich, the fire marshal for North Lincoln Fire & Rescue, said the sirens are at Roads End, the D River Wayside, the St. Clair Fire Station — formerly the Taft station — and in the Cutler City neighborhood.

“The sirens are part of a larger plan,” Ulrich said. “When people come to the beach to enjoy the ocean, they may not pay attention to their cellphones. I personally believe cellphone notification is more reliable, but sirens can be effective for visitors if a distant tsunami is coming our way.”

In a near-shore tsunami, “people will feel the ground moving beneath them, and it would be prudent to pay attention to their radios and seek higher ground,” Ulrich said. “In that type of tsunami event, you may have as few as five minutes to proceed to higher ground. The earthquake itself would give us the warning that something is coming our way.”

The Lincoln City sirens are tested at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays. Ulrich said if the sirens were to keep going off for four or five minutes at a time, people should pay attention.

“That should raise the curiosity level,” he said.

The City of Depoe Bay has five sirens of a different sort. They are “emergency annunciators” — capable of giving off both a traditional wailing noise and a verbal message.

Depoe Bay Public Works Director Brady Weidner said the sirens — more correctly called outdoor warning systems — are capable of announcing several types of verbal messages. For example, a tsunami warning or watch, fire danger, high winds or highway closure.

Weidner, who said he thinks Depoe Bay is one of just two cities on the Oregon Coast with annunciators, said there are different messages for different types of tsunamis. A tsunami-warning message says, “Alert, alert, a tsunami warning is in effect. Do not go near the harbor or shoreline. Proceed to higher ground outside the tsunami evacuation zone.” After a two-second pause, it continues, “Check reliable media sources for additional information.”

Weidner said all the pre-recorded messages were recently updated, and the test alert will say, “This is a test, this is only a test.” The city council has decided that the Westminster Chimes will be sounded during tests, so as not to startle tourists.

“That will be a good way to know the system is working,” Weidner said, noting the sound will be similar to church bells.

Weidner said the words for the texts and the siren sounds have been contracted with American Signal of Milwaukee, Wis. The sirens themselves were installed in 2010 and refurbished last year. Running on batteries, they can operate in a power outage.

Weidner added that the sirens stand up to the harsh coastal weather. They are made of heavy-duty fiberglass and are 70 feet tall, resembling what some people call a honey dipper or flying saucer, he said.

“They’re pretty much state-of-the-art,” Weidner added. “Their integrity is really good — they have stayed waterproof in our coastal environment.”

The sirens, Weidner concluded, are a way to make the public feel more comfortable.

Demaris, Lincoln County’s emergency manager, said the county “is not a proponent of siren-only devices.” One reason, she said, is because the county faces the possibility of two different types of tsunami, and response to each of them is not the same.

With a distant tsunami, perhaps from an earthquake in Alaska, residents would have a minimum of four hours to prepare. “That’s plenty of time for Public Safety to assist people in evacuating,” Demaris said.

But for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami right off the Oregon coast, Demaris said that, because the sirens would have to be activated by a human, “that’s not likely to happen when the ground is shaking.

“We have technology on our side,” she said of Lincoln Alerts, noting that sirens are “human dependent.”

The emergency alert system has a different philosophy than sirens, Demaris noted.

“Sirens used to mean a life safety issue, ‘take action and move now,’” she explained. That’s not the case for using a siren to announce a distant tsunami, when it’s a minimum of four hours away. And sometimes sirens go off accidentally.

“They’ve served their purpose,” Demaris said, noting that Tillamook County was the first county in Oregon to terminate the use of warning sirens.

She suggests that anyone who lives, works or drives through Lincoln County, or who has family here, familiarize themselves with tsunami inundation zone maps, and the county and Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) websites.

Those who need help in evacuating from an inundation zone after a warning is issued for a distant tsunami can put a “HELP” sign in a prominent window to enable first responders and volunteers conducting triage to quickly identify who needs help first. Displaying an “OK” sign instead allows responders to tend to others first.

The county’s Emergency Management website notes that HELP/OK signs are available for free at the county courthouse in the Emergency Management office; at city halls in Lincoln City, Depoe Bay, Newport, Toledo, Siletz, Waldport and Yachats; at fire stations in Yachats, Waldport, Seal Rock, Siletz, Toledo, Newport, the Depoe Bay Fire District and Lincoln City; and at police stations in Lincoln City and Toledo.

“Kudos go to (former Lincoln County) Sheriff Dennis Dotson and our current leaders — they support emergency response,” Demaris said. “They’ve made it a budget priority.”

And her message? “If you feel the ground shaking, move to high ground if you’re in an inundation area.”

Visit Lincoln County Emergency Management at www.co.lincoln.or.us/emergencymanagement or 541-265-4199 or Lincoln County Oregon Emergency Management on Facebook for more ways to prepare for a tsunami and/or earthquake or other emergency. The DOGAMI site is at www.oregongeology.org.

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