Cell phones seen as less expensive notification system

With more people attached to cell phones and myriad other mobile devices, emergency response officials see the phasing out of tsunami sirens on the horizon.

Curry County Emergency Preparedness Director Don Kendall is straddling a fine line between needing to repair tsunami sirens and wanting to maintain and expand the Nixle emergency notification system.

Sirens will become obsolete in a number of years, as more people connect to advanced technology - from iPads to smartphones. Even a simple cell phone can receive alerts from Nixle, a program set up to warn people of various emergencies in their communities.

"My top priority is maintaining the Nixle system," Kendall said. "I'd like to have Nixle tests the same day as the sirens, and once we're at a good point, then winnow off the sirens."

Cindy Henderson, Del Norte County Emergency Services Manager, said that the end of the siren era is likely to happen mostly due to the high cost of maintaining them in the coastal elements, which exceeds

$2,000 per Del Norte's seven sirens.

"But right now we like our sirens," Henderson said. "There are a lot of fishermen and boaters that might not be near their NOAA weather radio, so that's primarily why we really try to keep the sirens up."

Of Oregon's seven coastal counties, four use sirens to notify people of emergencies. The other three, Kendall said, rely on Nixle, or programs like it that call its participants, similar to a reverse 911 call in which a community's 911 system notifies all land-line subscribers and sends messages out to all mobile phone holders.

The triggers for those sirens, however, are situated far off the coast and are initiated when a tsunami generated on the other side of the Pacific passes by, triggering the on-shore devices and giving people about four hours notice to evacuate low-lying areas.

In modern times, however, most people are already well aware - through all the electronic gadgetry available at their fingertips - that a tsunami is on its way.

Del Norte County does not use Nixle or anything like it, but Henderson and the National Weather Service office in Eureka are pushing for people to download the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) app for smartphones and also for a NOAA weather radio to be in every home and business in the county.

As part of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 tsunami that destroyed Crescent City, Henderson said there are going to chances to win weather radios from local businesses.

The sirens along the West Coast will do no good when the Cascadia fault slips, releasing a 9.0 magnitude earthquake's worth of energy, Kendall said.

"The earthquake is your warning," Kendall said, quoting the local adage about when to evacuate to higher elevations. "There will be no sirens."

The offshore sirens, he noted, won't even be triggered until the Cascadia tsunami washes ashore and then back out to sea. And there's a good likelihood that all power would be cut to them anyway.

It's not just obsolescence that's often on Kendall's mind.

Curry County has 17 sirens, a few of which are usually offline awaiting repair or replacement parts from models dating from the 1960s. Last week, only three sirens were offline - in Crissey Field, Port of Brookings Harbor and one in Port Orford.

It costs $2,000 a month to keep the sirens in functioning order. And when they go down, it's not as simple as going to the local hardware store and buying replacement wire and sensors.

"Some of these issues just drive me crazy," Kendall said of repairs. "Something as simple as a little bit of corrosion on a wire will cause it not to work. The electrician goes through the system, says electronically everything's OK, so we send a radio tech and all they find is there's a little bit of corrosion that won't allow a contact - if they find that.

The transfer to Nixle would be cost effective and convenient for all involved, Kendall said.

"Eventually we're going to have to, because of the cost," he said. "It's either that or confirm that everyone still wants me to spend that kind of money. It's a huge dent in the county budget. With Nixle, you only have to have a cellphone."

Only two of the sirens in Curry County are owned by the county; the others are owned by agencies - fire departments, city halls and ports - that pay for the electricity and maintenance of that equipment.

The Del Norte Triplicate contributed to this report.