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The chimes of warning

AHAB passes

its first test

Nineteenth century Londoners welcomed the Westminster Chimes emanating from Big Ben as the imposing timekeeper ticked off the hours.

In 21st century Oak Harbor, the same melody, albeit a more digitized version, will not signal lunchtime but the immediate need to get to high ground before one can spell “tsunami.” Or at least “big wave.”

The recently-installed, state-funded All-Hazard Alert Broadcasting system, or AHAB, passed its first test Tuesday. David L. Hollett, Island County Department of Emergency Management deputy director, said he first sounded a Westminster Chime followed minutes later by a high-low siren, basically the stereotypical “air raid” siren.

Prior to testing, Hollett guessed the AHAB, designed to alert residents of imminent danger, could produce a sound audible for at least a one-mile radius depending on topography and other obstructions. Although he has not confirmed how far the test chimes and siren traveled, reports have trickled in.

“My wife first heard the chimes at Wal-Mart, but she thought it was one of those special car horns,” he said. “When she heard the siren, she said she knew exactly what it was. The high-low is unmistakable.”

A hearing meter placed 70 feet away from the AHAB as it blared registered the chimes at 95 decibels. The siren peaked at 110 decibels, approximately the level of sound produced by a power saw running at its lowest setting.

“It surprised me it was so low,” Hollett said. “The information we received said the siren could be as much as 130 decibels. But our topography is unique. One thing we know is the dogs didn’t like it all.”

Since the sound is deflected up and out through the pods, when the DEM deputy director parked his Jeep directly underneath the AHAB, he found himself in the calm of the siren storm.

“My ears didn’t even ring,” he said. “My gas generator or my lawnmower are louder than that. It was amazing.”

In addition to chimes and three choices of sirens, the AHAB can also sound a prerecorded voice message. Additional tests will be conducted in the future. Hollett said he is hoping to send notice of the test dates and details attached to utility bills to ensure the public is expecting the unexpected.

The AHAB is a tower of seven separate oval pods bolted to the top of a pole designed to elevate the 1,200-pound system above the water towers.

Hollett is soliciting input from the public to help ascertain the strength of the sound.

“I’m very excited to find out how far it reached,” said Hollett, who is in the process of contacting schools in the vicinity as well as I-COM to determine the volume of AHAB-related calls.

The county DEM is also looking to the public for ideas about the perfect Oak Harbor-specific test sound. Hollett said he has received one idea thus far. And the clever idea could actually work, he said.

“The suggestion was that we use the sound of a train,” the DEM professional said. “Once I thought about it, I realized that’s not a bad idea. It’s a sound you’d never hear on Whidbey Island. That way everyone will know it’s a test.”

The DEM’s Web site can be contacted through its Web site at http://islandcounty.net/gsa/des/index.html and by phone at 360-240-5572.

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