DEPOE BAY — After city officials rang in the New Year with the apocalyptic wail of five sirens that sent startled residents running for high ground, the local fire department was left to answer hundreds of calls and calm frayed nerves.
“It definitely caused chaos in the fire district because city offices were closed,” recalled Chief Bryan Daniels of the Jan. 2 incident where outgoing Mayor Robert Gambino triggered Depoe Bay’s emergency warning system at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. “It put us in a predicament as people fled up Collins Street and Lillian Lane (local escape routes) and stayed there. We took the brunt of that activation.”
The fire chief’s terse comments came Jan. 19 during a special work session of the Depoe Bay City Council to probe the circumstances of the embarrassing event, which generated widespread news coverage and raised questions about the city’s use of air raid-style sirens for commonplace events. Under the pretext of a NOAA high-wind warning, it was the first time the sirens had been activated since being installed seven years ago.
Mayor Kathy Short made the inquiry one of her first priorities after taking office Jan. 6, presiding over a workshop that produced troubling revelations about the $185,000 warning system and raised questions about its future. Among the most startling disclosures was the years-long decline of relations between the city and the local fire district, separate entities that worked at odds to protect residents in recent years and have become “disconnected,” in the fire chief’s words.
One speaker noted the control device to activate the alarm system had been “passed back and forth three times” between city and fire officials over the years, “depending on who’s in charge.”
Summoned to explain what happened on Jan. 2 were members of an emergency warning system committee that wrote the handbook on siren use, including longtime civic volunteers Roy Hageman and Jack O’Brien. Ex-mayor Robert Gambino, the third member of the group, did not attend.
Hageman explained how the city decided to install sirens after the March 11, 2010 Japanese tsunami struck Depoe Bay with enough force to destroy a dock and wreak havoc in the city’s harbor. With funding from the city and the Siletz Tribe and assistance from Central Lincoln PUD for the poles, the city purchased a system capable of emitting a wide array of warnings and verbal messages. But interest in the system faded as the tsunami became a distant memory.
“The committee started putting a protocol together and got as far as 90 percent, but the administration changed and the emphasis went away,” recalled Hageman, who said the handbook wasn’t completed and approved by Mayor Gambino and the city council until 2019.
O’Brien acknowledged the sound of doomsday sirens has different meanings to different people. In Boston, where he grew up, he said the wailing meant “it’s time to go to lunch.” He defended the city’s decision to install sirens, however.
“Here in Depoe Bay we don’t have a police force, and we don’t have a city fire department,” he commented. “The city is basically responsible for keeping the citizens and the many visitors we get safe. In some ways it’s a crap shoot to say we’ve got a problem here and to let people know there’s a problem. On the other hand, if the city does nothing, that’s not good, either.”
Several city councilors commented on the incident, including Joyce King, who said she was among those who hurried to high ground amid the wailing. Another city councilor suggested the entire system be turned over to the fire department, an idea that Chief Daniels said he would think about as fire officials mull a future district-wide siren project.
Councilor Jerome Grant scoffed at the notion of setting off alarms for anything but “emergencies of the first order,” saying people “will stop listening if you do these warnings for every gale-force storm.”
Daniels agreed, exploding the city’s official position that emergency sirens can be used for a variety of events.
“When you hear sirens blare in other cities it’s to announce a tsunami,” Daniels said, rejecting the list of events that could trigger alarms in Depoe Bay, including winds, bank robberies and Amber alerts. “You’re doing a disservice to your citizens by having a similar tone and making it represent different warnings or activities.”
City Superintendent Brady Weidner also revealed that the equipment installed by American Signal Corporation doesn’t stand up well to the Oregon coast’s severe weather. The cash-strapped city recently ordered 24 new amplifiers at a cost of $1,000 each to replace components that have corroded. The failure of amplifiers resulted in a garbled message explaining the Jan. 2 sirens were for high winds, not a tsunami.
While there was an encouraging report from the city’s emergency communications director, Michael Dane, about a well-stocked emergency radio trailer, the future of the town’s siren system is up in the air. Mayor Short said the issue would be taken up at a future city council meeting.