Borough debuts new, more capable emergency alert system

May 1, 2018

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake which struck near Kodiak in January generated plenty of tsunami alerts -- though little in the way of actual tsunamis -- throughout coastal communities in the Gulf of Alaska, including here on the Kenai Peninsula.

Unfortunately, many people who needed to be notified of potential doom were not able to be reached because of limitations in the equipment the borough's Office of Emergency Management uses to contact citizens in times of crisis.

"The system that we were using was designed quite a long time ago. And it was really designed before the mobility that we use now, cell phones, smart phones, those type of thing," said Dan Nelson, the OEM's program manager. "So on the January 23rd tsunami warning, we used the system to try to get the word out about evacuations in areas that may be subject to inundation. But what we found from that event was that the system simply couldn't handle the volume of phone calls."

Nelson said the new system mitigates that limitation by not relying solely on landline telephones.

"It now sends out multiple methods of warning, which includes phone calls, like we used to, but also includes text messages, and also uses social media like Facebook and Twitter to get that information out at the same time, automatically," he said. "So residents will still see phone calls, but they'll see other options as well."

Nelson said the OEM had sufficient funds in its budget already, and so was able to react quickly when it became apparent a new system was needed as soon as possible.

"We put this system into real high priority in three months, was basically the timeline to evaluate many different vendors, get the contract, get it in place and ready to roll out," Nelson said. "We're about 80 percent there, it's public-facing now so residents can sign up their mobile numbers. We are working on the last technical pieces, but it is functional and ready to go if we need it today."

elson said residents may notice when the system undergoes a "load test" at some point in the next few months.

"The reason for that is to actually see how much we can push through our phone network at one time. And so we're going to kind of stress test it and see what the best velocity or rate of information that can be sent here," he said.

Residents who signed up for the old notification system do not need to sign up again, but Nelson recommends they do anyway, as some numbers were lost in the transfer to the new system. He said duplicates should be weeded out automatically and people shouldn't receive duplicate messages. Landline numbers are already in the system, but Nelson says residents have to opt-in for cell phone and other alerts. You can do so on the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Office of Emergency Management web page.