From 1 July, residents in coastal areas of the Eastern Bay will no longer hear alert sirens as a notice to check for official messages in case of a tsunami alert. Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki District Councils will no longer use the sirens and will rely on a range of other alerting tools including Emergency Mobile Alerts (EMA), radio, stinger sirens and internet-based systems.
The Eastern Bay's system relied on existing Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) station sirens with a long, sustained tone to distinguish it from the rise and fall call to volunteer fire fighters. This network is not message or voice capable and does not meet the requirements of the national director's Technical Standard.
The Chief Executives from Ōpōtiki and Whakatāne District Councils represent their communities on the Coordinating Executive Group (CEG) to the Bay of Plenty Civil Defence Group.
Whakatāne Chief Executive, Steph O'Sullivan, said that it was a carefully- considered decision of both Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki District Council that weighed the very high cost of replacement sirens and the frequent issues and misunderstandings of the system.
"Internationally, there is a movement away from reliance on sirens for tsunami alerts. We have many alerting tools in our toolbox and most of them are faster, more targeted, have better coverage and are more nuanced than a loud noise in specific coastal areas.
"Our entire coast is at risk of tsunami and only a small portion of it is covered by sirens. There have been errors and issues in the past and certainly for visitors to the area, the confusion with the volunteer fire siren is raised frequently.
"Research, from Japan in particular, shows that having sirens creates a false sense of security – people expect to be warned by the siren, rather than trusting the natural warning signs they can see and feel. That is the basis of the vital "Long Strong Get Gone" Civil Defence campaign.
"On that basis, we were clear that it wasn't worth the rate-payer funded million-dollar cost for a new system," Steph O'Sullivan said.
Ōpōtiki Chief Executive Aileen Lawrie, said that other alerting tools are already in use nationally and throughout the eastern Bay and have proved to be effective in blanket messaging or targeting an impacted group such as the recent examples of the national alert for Level 4 lockdown and the more targeted 'do not drink' notice for Kawerau residents.
"No one system is perfect which is why Civil Defence will always use a number of messaging systems in any situation. But nothing will ever take the place of good community – checking on neighbours, calling older family members, having a whānau plan for an emergency so you all know what to do and where to meet.
"If our communities are faced with a local-source tsunami, we'll need to pay attention to the natural warning signs (a strong earthquake, sea behaving strangely) and make a decision for ourselves and our families. A siren, or even an alert on our phone, is unable to be able to tell us what to do quickly enough.
"In the case of a distant source tsunami, we'll use all the tools available to us to ensure the local community has good, reliable and trusted information to act on.
"We will continue to talk with our communities about emerging technologies and looking for new and different ways to improve the suite of systems available for alerting the public," Aileen Lawrie said.
Visit the Bay of Plenty Emergency Management website for further information on ways to stay informed and what the natural warning signs of Tsunami are.