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Miscoded test Tsunami Warning wrongly distributed in Alaska and causes public concern

May 15, 2018, 3:45:58 PM EDT

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Last Thursday, a test tsunami message issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) was broadcast over the Emergency Alert System in Alaska as a real warning, causing alarm for residents.


"The NWS has struggled to issue properly formatted products denoting test Tsunami Warnings," Daryl Herzmann, systems analyst III at Iowa State University, said. "While to the human reader, the disseminated text products are filled with the wording 'Test', automated processes are not necessarily looking at that messaging but are keying off other parts of the product."

"The test product was disseminated twice [in the Alaska incident]. The first product was truncated about half way through the product and failed to include the VTEC flag that denotes the product being a test product. The second product had the VTEC string and was properly interrupted as a test product," Herzmann said.

This was the latest in a series of test tsunami alerts from the NWS that were broadcast to the public. Prior to last week's incident, a tsunami alert was disseminated by an app in Texas during April, according to news reports.

The East Coast was alerted about a Tsunami Warning by private companies, including AccuWeather, in early February, following a miscoded test message sent out by the NWS.

A Tsunami Warning false alarm was reported along the West coast back in October of 2014.

“Given the number of test tsunami warnings that have actually been distributed in recent months, there appears to be a significant systematic issue in the way test messages are issued for tsunami warnings which the National Weather Service needs to urgently address. AccuWeather and others, have been advising the NWS about our concerns on how these tests are conducted since at least 2014,“ Marshall Moss, AccuWeather vice president of forecasting and graphics operations, said.

The weather enterprise has raised flags to the NWS on the side effects of sending false warnings to the public.

“Having four separate tests go out to the public as actual warnings is problematic because it can erode the confidence of the public in not only tsunami warnings but potentially other warnings where action will be required. People should take immediate action when they receive a government weather warning – not question its legitimacy,” Jon Porter, AccuWeather vice president and general manager of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, said.

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“AccuWeather has shared the insights of its technical experts on the NWS coding issues with the National Weather Service and continue to have ongoing discussions with the NWS about how the NWS can enhance its warning system," Porter said.

The NWS provided statements to AccuWeather via e-mail following the Alaska tsunami alert incident.

"The problem occurred because a third party vendor improperly decoded the message, causing them to redistribute our test message as a warning which activated the Emergency Alert System [EAS] in Alaska," Susan Buchanan, NWS acting director of public affairs, said.

"We have been assured that the vendor is aware and is working to fix the problem that caused EAS activation on their end," Buchanan said.

"We conduct monthly tests to uncover any potential issues. Hundreds of vendors redistribute our messages. When we find problems, such as a vendor not following the decoder process appropriately, we work with the vendor to help resolve the problem. Likewise, when we uncover problems on our end, we find and fix the problems. That doesn't assure that issues will not arise in the future, but we will continue to run tests and work with our vendors to find and fix any problems we uncover," Buchanan said.

Since October 2014, AccuWeather has been advising the NWS on how these test messages could continue to be disseminated to the public without a fix to the way they are coded.

AccuWeather's CEO Barry Myers wrote to the NWS over three years ago: "We understand the reason for test messages, but we feel that NWS consider fail safe measures for the future to prevent such an occurrence. The issuance did say it was a "TSUNAMI WARNING," but it was not a tsunami warning, rather simply a test of the system. We note that the method currently used of relying on the "TEST" in the header of the product and a test in the VTEC status, as the identifying device for software coding in numerous programs and systems used by a plethora of companies to identify such messages, has proven to be a less than perfect system."

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