PORT ANGELES — The false tsunami warning in Clallam County Monday was caused by an official in Jefferson County who was testing a new cellphone app, state officials said Tuesday.
That’s why when Todd Morrison, public information officer for Jefferson County Emergency Management, attempted to test sirens in Jefferson County, those sirens didn’t go off, said Mark Stewart, spokesperson for the state Emergency Management Division.
“We know that there is a combination of human error and a lack of restriction in the new phone app that is being rolled out that led to the Clallam County sirens being triggered to play the tsunami warning message,” Stewart said. “We’re still working with our siren vendor to figure out exactly what happened.”
People in downtown Port Angeles and across Clallam County’s coast heard the sirens begin wailing at about noon Monday, before an announcement in English and Spanish saying “this is a tsunami warning issued for the state of Washington, evacuate to higher ground.”
It was during the scheduled monthly test of the sirens, which is planned for noon on the first Monday of each month.
Stewart said it wasn’t clear whether it was a programming issue or whether Morrison had pressed the incorrect button in the app.
Morrison did not return calls Tuesday. On Monday, Morrison said he was testing the cellphone app and that when he attempted to start the test, Jefferson County’s sirens did not go off.
That cellphone app, which the state was beginning to roll out to counties across the state in April, was deactivated Tuesday morning and the Division of Emergency Management worked with the vendor to build in restrictions that would prevent counties from activating other counties’ sirens.
“They have indicated it might take a little while to figure out how to do that,” Stewart said. “One of the things we’re looking at is to see if all the buttons are programmed correctly.”
Stewart said the app, provided by Federal Signal, is available on the app store but requires two steps of authentication for the app to be usable, preventing the public from having access.
Once in the app, users can select the sirens that will go off and select the message that will go out. Those selections are followed by a confirmation page, he said.
For now, counties will need to use computer software, provided by the same vendor, or hand-held radios to activate sirens.
He said counties are only able to activate their own sirens, though the state can activate sirens as well.
Stewart said the error Monday will be considered a learning experience that will help improve the state’s siren system.
“The reason we do the test is to see if we have any problems in the system, identify them and get them fixed,” he said.
Jamye Wisecup, program coordinator for Clallam County’s Emergency Management Department, said that though the error wasn’t caused in Clallam County, she is considering a number of new protocols to help keep the public more informed.
She said Clallam County didn’t yet have access to the cellphone app.
She stressed that though the message was an error, when people hear the sirens wail, like they did on Monday, they should make their way to higher ground.
She said it is possible that a real warning could go off during a scheduled drill.
“I want people to know the difference,” she said. “The wail does mean that it’s a warning and to go to higher ground.”
A number of Peninsula Daily News readers said on social media they did not hear the sirens go off.
Wisecup said the county’s 10 sirens each can be heard 4,000 feet away, though weather can affect how the sound travels.
She said people should have National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all hazards radios to guarantee that they would get the message.
The radios can be programmed to receive alerts for Clallam County.
“If you live on the coast, you are very smart to get a NOAA all hazards broadcast radio,” she said. “We can help you program it over the phone.”
She commended the county’s radio operators who worked to cancel the sirens Monday once they heard the wailing begin.
“They worked immediately when they started to hear the wailing,” she said.
Jesse Major is a reporter at the Peninsula Daily News.