This tsunami siren on Chesterman Beach was one of three that began wailing Friday morning as part of the District of Tofino’s monthly emergency notification testing. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

This tsunami siren on Chesterman Beach was one of three that began wailing Friday morning as part of the District of Tofino’s monthly emergency notification testing. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

The sweet sounds of emergency prep echoing over the West Coast

Tsunami zone communities tinker with alert plans to be better prepared

In January, West Coast residents were jolted out of their beds at 3 a.m. by the unsettling tsunami warning sirens, which were triggered following a 7.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska.

Fortunately, the tsunami never arrived, but following the wake-up call, local government authorities took the opportunity to review their response to the situation.

So did Port Alberni residents. Where does the inundation zone end? Where are the mustering stations?

And where were the didgeridoos?

“We noticed there’s a lot of confusion about the different sounds,” said Freya Knapp.

Knapp was a student in Anne Ostwald’s Alberni District Secondary School Civics 11 class in 2015. She is one of the students who helped select the didgeridoo sound for the monthly tsunami warning system test—which is a different sound than the haunting sirens of the actual tsunami warning.

“They’re supposed to be very different,” she said. “We were told that there had to be a stark contrast. The test isn’t a warning—it’s a reminder that we live in a tsunami hazard zone.”

READ: Siren song

Ostwald used words like “ghostly” and “frightening” to describe the real siren.

“Which is the way it’s supposed to be,” said Knapp.

Before the didgeridoos took over the monthly test, the previous sound was only a female voice that repeated, “This is a test. Only a test. A test of the tsunami warning system.”

“It was boring,” Knapp said, frankly.

The fire chief at the time, Tim Pley, approached Ostwald’s class to help find a new test sound. The students narrowed their selections down to three sounds, and took them to city council.

In the end, the didgeridoo was chosen because the test, as opposed to the tsunami siren, is not supposed to be jarring.

“It’s supposed to be a gentle thing,” said Ostwald. “It’s not supposed to wake up the entire town. The sounds are opposite so you respond differently. It’s like a fire drill, but you don’t have to go anywhere. Then when the real one happens, there’s no room for panic, because you’ve been here before.”

The tsunami warning that woke up the town in January was “a beautiful wake-up call,” according to Ostwald.

“It was brilliant that it happened that way,” she said. “We are so fortunate. It’s at the forefront of all of our heads now that you have to have a plan.

“Now we’re talking about it,” she emphasized. “We’ve been giving it lip service.”

While the good folk of Alberni were talking didgeridoos, it was the sound of Westminster Chimes that rang out over Tofino’s beaches Friday morning as the district tested its emergency notification system.

Tofino has tested it’s tsunami sirens on the first Friday of every month for the past two years and now has added monthly One Call notification system testing, which provides a phone call, text message and email to locals who have signed up through the district’s website at www.tofino.ca.

“It’s important to exercise these systems to make sure that they’re working effectively and also to bring general awareness of emergency preparedness within our community,” Tofino’s emergency program coordinator Keith Orchiston told the Westerly News from the district’s Emergency Operations Centre above the Tofino Fire Hall Friday morning.

At 11 a.m., a booming voice belted out “This is a test of the emergency warning system,” from the district’s three sirens—located at Cox Bay, South-Chesterman and North-Chesterman—before the Westminster Chimes kicked in.

Aleah Rockwell was visiting Tofino from Cochrane, Alberta, and said she heard and appreciated the siren.

“I think it’s a really good thing. It makes me feel more safe to know that it’s going on and that we’re looked after,” she told the Westerly News at North Chesterman. “It’s a really good idea.”

Meanwhile, in Ucluelet, emergency preparation is also going under the microscope this week. The district has an emergency preparedness Open House scheduled for March 8 from 3-7 p.m. at the community centre, where it hopes to find ways to improve its emergency notification processes by hearing locals share their experiences from that event.

“We want to talk to the public and hear from the public after the event that we had…We’re coordinating our efforts and always trying to improve,” said Ucluelet mayor Dianne St. Jacques. “When and if an event like that happens, we all want to do everything we can to be safe so we need to know what worked well for people and what ideas they might have on improvements.”

elena.rardon@albernivalleynews.com