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The voice of AHAB

Dave Hollett, Island County Emergency Services director, speaks into his microphone in front of the satellite dish that is part of the AHAB emergency warning system in Oak Harbor. The device will be tested Friday, June 12, sending out a variety of audio warnings throughout the community. - Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times
Dave Hollett, Island County Emergency Services director, speaks into his microphone in front of the satellite dish that is part of the AHAB emergency warning system in Oak Harbor. The device will be tested Friday, June 12, sending out a variety of audio warnings throughout the community.
— image credit: Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times

The Cascade subduction zone gives way, causing the largest earthquake in the Pacific Northwest since the last time it did that, 300 years ago.

Dave Hollett, Island County Department of Emergency Management director, knows he has only one hour before a tsunami hits Oak Harbor. The wave will start in southern Puget Sound and race northward, building up to 20 feet in height as it crests over the city. Fortunately, AHAB is watching over Oak Harbor, and Hollett is able to warn people to get to higher ground, fast.

This is the worst-case scenario for which Hollet and other emergency planners throughout the state have been preparing for years. A big part of that preparation takes place Friday, June 12, when AHAB (All Hazards Alert Broadcasting System) is fully tested for the first time.

“We finally got the satellite to talk to everybody, we’re ready for a full range of tests,” Hollett said Thursday.

From 3 to 5 p.m. residents will hear a series of sounds emanating from AHAB, which sits on top of a 70-foot pole at the highest point in Oak Harbor next to two huge water towers, 333 feet above sea level. AHAB has been tested before, but now all the satellite and other glitches have been worked out and it’s ready to go through the full spectrum of sounds.

AHAB can be activated from Olympia, Coupeville, Hollett’s vehicle or at the installation itself. It can emit a steady siren, a wailing siren, “Westminster” chimes, and verbal transmissions from emergency personnel. Hollett’s voice will be heard at times Friday, carrying approximately one mile in all directions.

Before residents hear the siren tests, they will hear the phrase, “This is a test of the All Hazards Alert Broadcasting System, this is only a test.”

Exactly how far the warnings can be hear is an important part of the test. Ham radio club volunteers will be stationed at various points around the city, reporting what they hear.

The public’s assistance is also requested. Citizens hearing the test are asked to call 679-7370 and provide the nearest cross street to their location, the time they heard the siren or voice announcements and how well they could hear the test.

Although primarily designed for tsunami warnings, AHAB can be used in any potential disaster, from wild fires to terrorist attacks. Hollett said they’re used on Mount Rainier to warn of Lahore mudflows from volcanoes, and at the Port of Seattle they are equipped with “sniffers” to detect dangerous chemicals.

“We can do anything with it,” Hollett said.

The Oak Harbor AHAB cost about $30,000, with the federal Department of Homeland Security picking up 80 percent of the tab and Island County covering the rest.

Hollett expects the public will be cooperative with the testing, but realizes that the loud sounds Friday will be bothersome.

“It’s just going to be annoying to have these sounds go off,” he said.

But he also knows that when a real emergency occurs, nobody will be annoyed when AHAB saves their life.

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