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Multiple false alarms warning of a dam failure have Carnation residents on edge

caption: Forest and river views taken at the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Forest.
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Forest and river views taken at the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Forest.
Courtesy of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe

If the Tolt River Dam failed, it would be catastrophic for the roughly 2,000 people that live in Carnation.

Fortunately, the city has an alarm system that would alert residents of a dam failure so they could evacuate.

Unfortunately, residents have unexpectedly and pointlessly heard that alarm eight times in the last four years.

Carnation sits at the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers. An earthen dam operated by Seattle Public Utilities lies 16 miles up the Tolt from that confluence.

The dam provides water for hundreds of thousands of SPU customers.

Typically, the utility tests the alarm every Wednesday at noon. The test is accompanied by a message confirming that it’s a test. But lately, those alarms have not been doing what they should.

The first false alarm was back in July 2020. It caused the majority of the city to evacuate.

"We were here at the senior center getting ready for lunch, we had been closed to the public because of Covid. But we still had staff here. And so everybody left," said Kira Avery, the director of the Sno-Valley Senior Center.

There are two ways to evacuate Carnation. People with access to a vehicle are advised to drive out of town.

For people on foot, they’re instructed to hike up a wooded hill to the east of the city.

"When the alarm went off in 2020, a lot of people, too many people ended up driving up the walking evacuation route, which caused a lot of problems for everybody who was trying to evacuate by car and by foot," Avery said.

It was a chaotic scene. Tiffany Goodman owns a dog grooming business in Carnation.

"It started alarming that the dam had failed that everybody needed to evacuate," Goodman said. "It wasn't a drill, and the air raid sirens were just going off continuously."

That incident and subsequent alarms constantly reminded Goodman that the dam could break and destroy the town.

Carnation Mayor Jim Ribail said this is one of the two issues with the false alarms. He called it the “psychological impact."

The false alarms "bring back those emotions every time. We had elderly people just walking out into the front yard, expecting a wall of debris to come down and they're gonna pass away because they couldn't evacuate," Ribail said.

Being faced with potentially imminent danger is one thing. Being faced with it several times leads to the other problem with these false alarms, which has the opposite effect.

A lack of trust in the alarms leads people to take no action.

"It's the whole 'boy that cried wolf' analogy," Ribail said. "If it really is an emergency, you know, people aren't gonna evacuate."

Seattle Public Utilities began the process of replacing the old dam alarm system after that initial 2020 false alarm.

SPU says the new system is fully operational and more reliable, but even so, there was another false alarm on March 27.

Mayor Ribail is getting impatient.

"I would say if this was happened in downtown Seattle in 2020, this [would] be fixed inside of six months, Ribail said. "We're going on four years."

Ribail added that Carnation doesn’t benefit from the reservoir the dam creates as a water source.

Carnation city officials are pushing for the federal government to deny recertification to the dam when its license expires in 2029.

"It is a city of Seattle asset. The city of Carnation has no benefit. We have our own water sources. We don't get any water from that dam at all. So it's SPU and the city of Seattle's responsibility to make sure that dam is safe and make sure that the warning systems that they put in place operate properly," Ribail said.

It’s unlikely the dam will be decommissioned, and hopefully a catastrophic breach will be even less likely to happen.

One thing’s for sure, the frustrated residents of Carnation don’t want to hear that dam sound again.

Seattle Public Utilities issued KUOW the following statement about the false alarms:

"Immediately following the March 27 unplanned siren activation in Carnation, Seattle Public Utilities launched an investigation into what happened. Last week we learned through the investigation that our contractor Federal Signal accidentally caused the activation while doing remote work on the system. Federal Signal has said that one of their employees failed to follow procedures by not turning off siren communications while performing the planned work. Federal Signal has apologized to SPU and asked us to convey their apology to the Carnation community.

SPU knows and fully understands the March 27 unplanned siren and other incidents related to the Tolt Dam Early Warning System have caused a lot of concern and frustration in the community. We are diligently working to make things right.

SPU began work to replace the old siren system after a July 2020 false alarm, and the new system is now operational. While the new system is more reliable and resilient than the older system, community members have expressed concern about various aspects of the new system, including volume levels and acoustic quality related to the message broadcasted during weekly siren testing.

SPU values feedback from Carnation officials and community members and after discussion with Carnation leaders, we decided to deactivate the Early Warning system, including the Wednesday noon testing, for now. SPU will continue to listen to community input and work closely with Carnation officials to determine the best path forward.

We want to reassure the public that the Tolt Dam remains safe. SPU monitors it visually and with instrumentation 24/7, 365 days a year. Our robust dam safety program includes daily on-site inspections and instrument readings by operators, dam safety quarterly inspections, federal annual inspections, and independent consultant inspections every five years.

In the unlikely event of a dam emergency, the community would be notified through our partner King County Office of Emergency Management in the following ways:

  • Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) System. WEA would broadcast a safety message, similar to an Amber Alert, to all cell phones in the impacted area. No one needs to subscribe—these alerts are automatic.
  • Reverse 911 that goes out to landlines in the impacted area.
  • The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is the primary means for providing the public with critical alert information about an emergency or disaster. That includes broadcasts from radio, tv, and cable tv.
  • King County opt-in alerts: ALERT King County - King County, Washington"
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