In January, residents of Port Alberni 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, the city and regional district 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.”
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. It isn’t unusual, Ostwald said, for members of the community to provide ideas for her classes. In the case of the tsunami test sound, the whole Civics 11 class wanted to be involved.
Students listened to months of sounds in the classroom, then listened to the potential tests through a portable tsunami broadcasting system outside.
“Some of them sounded really cool in [the classroom], but not outside,” said Knapp. “As soon as we heard the didgeridoos, we thought, this is exactly what we want.”
The students narrowed their selections down to three sounds, and took them to city council.
In the end, the didgeridoo was chosen.
Craig Duncan of Alberni Communications cleaned up the sound and made it a little slower to fit within the proper wavelengths. The didgeridoo sound is actually music from a duet in France, and the city needed permission to use their track for the monthly test.
“They were so excited when they heard we wanted to use their music,” Knapp laughed.
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 test is a reminder, added Knapp. “Make sure you are prepared, that you have a plan, a bag, an exit strategy,” she said.
Port Alberni fire chief Kelly Gilday agreed that the two sounds are supposed to be opposites.
“When there are two sounds that are quite different, there can be some confusion,” he said. “We can alleviate that confusion through public awareness.”
Holding the tsunami test once a month at the same time, he said, is one method of public education.
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.”
Ostwald said she does not think the test sound needs to be changed again.“We’re not going to change something that’s working,” she said.
“I didn’t think I’d still be talking about it three years later,” Knapp added with a laugh.
Gilday said there are no plans at this time to change the test sound, but the city and fire department are planning to go through a process to “clean up” the test sound and the warning sound.
“Spoken messages can sometimes get lost in the echo of the Valley,” he said. “Even with the alarm, we’re going to try and get away with the spoken messages.”
The didgeridoo sound is different enough that, at this point, it works. “There just needs to be even more public education at this point,” said Gilday.
“I’m getting to kind of like the didgeridoo,” he added with a laugh.
The new tsunami test took five months of research from students, as well as $4,000 from the city to implement.
When the sound was changed, the story was picked up by media outlets across the country—largely because of how it came about. Although Port Alberni’s fire department and city staff were both involved in the process, it was entirely driven by students.
“The youth are empowered to change their community and make it better,” said Ostwald. “We need to be valuing the youth voice, because they are the change makers.
“They have something to contribute.”