Kodiak’s decades-old Tsunami siren system gets a new song

Horns pointing out in multiple directions with spruce trees visible in the background
This tsunami siren behind the Kodiak post office (Rhonda McBride/KMXT)

Kodiak has heard the wail of sirens every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. for decades.

They sound like something out of an old, World War II movie – a weekly test of a warning system to signal households in Kodiak’s low-lying areas to move to higher ground, should an earthquake trigger a tsunami.

The problem, says Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson, is that the system is getting old.

“I don’t want to be swallowed-up by a 34-foot-tsunami wave,” Branson said. “I want to be able to evacuate. We’re very vulnerable here.”

The first new tsunami siren to be installed went up behind the downtown Kodiak Fire Station.

Branson is relieved that work is underway to retire 21 tsunami warning sirens on Kodiak Island, which have worked hard for more than thirty years.

The new ones will be installed one by one, until they’re all replaced – sirens that will not only be more reliable, but with some new capabilities.

In recent years, the city council has had complaints that some of the sirens don’t work anymore. But Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney says they’re not easy to fix.

“It’s getting difficult to find components,” said Putney. “It’s expensive. It’s older technology. A lot of times you’re getting used components.”

The original sirens were installed in the mid-eighties. A few were added in the early nineties, that run on a computer operating system that most people are glad to see gone.

Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney and Fire Chief Jim Mullican are about the same height as the new speakers, which are still in their shipping crates.

“They can only be programmed through DOS, which is obsolete, so it would be very difficult, if the need arose, to reprogram those,” Putney said.

West Shore Services, a Michigan company, is in Kodiak installing new sirens. The company does most of the installations in Alaska.

Jeff DuPilka, the owner, says biggest challenge is not the work itself but the logistics involved. He brought rigs with a crane and a drill to Kodiak, along with 50-foot steel pipes and crates of siren speakers, which look like  little white UFO spaceships stacked on top of each other.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said, “just takes a lot of extra planning time.”

Most of the equipment to install the sirens, as well as the components, arrived on the state ferry, the Tustumena. DuPilka said he was expecting to use Tustumena to get his equipment back to Anchorage, but since the ferry’s winter service schedule was cut back, getting his equipment back to the road system will be more challenging and expensive.

For now, he’s focused on the job and says the biggest challenge, one that’s unique to Kodiak, is drilling holes for the poles. DuPilka says it takes about a day to install a siren.

“We put these poles in the ground ten feet, so the hurdles will be if we had some rock that we can drill,” said DuPilka, who laughed when he was told Kodiak’s nickname for itself was “The Rock.”

“It fits,” he said.

Not only do the sirens look different but will sound different as well. Fire Chief Jim Mullican says the added height of the new poles will help project the sound.

“Once this system is complete, when the system is hit, you will hear it a lot louder,” Mullican said.

The new system has a lot of other advantages. It can send out different tones. There is one for a tsunami alert, which will sound off every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. once the system is installed.

The new system can also play recorded messages, in English, as well Spanish and Tagalog, languages you hear a lot in Kodiak. These messages will provide updates on what’s going on, which Chief Mullican says will help to prevent the emergency dispatch center from getting flooded with calls.

“Having all the pre-recorded messages really helps out dispatch,” Mullican said. “They’re also answering hundreds and hundreds of phone calls.

Mullican said automated messages will free up emergency dispatchers to respond to citizen needs during an emergency.

The sirens can also be used selectively. For example, there’s a tone for a chemical spill, that could be played only in affected neighborhoods.

This new system also talks to the dispatch center. During tests, each siren can signal back that it is functioning properly.

Public safety officials can also use the system to broadcast messages live, if need be.

But what the new system won’t do is eliminate the need for human involvement. The sounds are not quite loud enough to be heard indoors in some homes, especially those with thick walls and a lot of insulation.

So, expect to see police and other emergency workers go door-to-door during tsunami alerts to make sure neighborhoods are completely evacuated.

It may be a few weeks yet, before Kodiak gets to hear the new sirens. Before the new system can be hooked up to the city’s emergency dispatch center, a new console must be installed.

Funding for the siren installation within the city of Kodiak comes to about $553,376, mostly federal money with a city match. Beyond city limits, a combination of federal and Borough funds will be used. The cost amounts to $513,241.

And even though the new system produces different sounds, one thing will remain the same: the need to be prepared. Although the new sirens can be tested without sounding off, Kodiak’s emergency responders say it’s still important to carry on the tradition of Wednesday’s 2:00 p.m. drill, lest we forget the 1964 tsunami that washed away Kodiak’s downtown waterfront in one giant wave.