Renewed concerns over Tolt Dam Warning System after weekly audio test goes silent

There are renewed concerns over the Tolt Dam Warning System after a weekly audio test did not sound off as it should on Wednesday in Carnation.

Councilmember Kathy Lambert of King County said the audio error happened just several months ago in September, which also followed the false alarm on July 28, 2020.

"It signals, you had better get out of there in 90 minutes, or 30 feet of water will be in your neighborhood," said Lambert.

Locals in Carnation recall the panic and frenzy that followed the warning that was accidentally set off.

"It just kept saying, ‘Tolt River Dam has failed. Evacuate immediately,’" said Bonnie Remlinger. "Everybody was just speechless, and then we started running."

The entire city was attempting to evacuate or reach higher ground because they believed the Tolt River Dam had failed.

Bonnie said that false alarm happened to fall on her husband Gary’s birthday. Both of them were on the family owned farm, Remlinger Farms, and said they first made sure everyone evacuated the farm, then pushed the animals to safety.

"Everybody came back and said false alarm, false alarm. It took me a while to calm down and let the ponies go again," said Bonnie.

"It went off for about 30 minutes or 45 minutes, so everybody thought it must be real because it kept going on and on and on," said Gary.

Lambert said the City of Seattle that owns and operates the Tolt Dam must take the warning system and its issues seriously. She said counting last summer’s false alarm, and the audio error from September and now this past Wednesday, it raises further concern about overall maintenance.

"[Seattle Public Utilities] had the opportunity to setup Robocalls. We told them people need to be notified individually. There are 2,200 people in town. There’s technology to get to all of their cell phones," said Lambert who represented District 3. "They had since July 29, the day after, when we talked to them about this to get it set up, and I don’t feel they’re taking it seriously enough."

In a statement, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) apologized for the confusion and said in part:

"While the alarm did not sound [Wednesday] during the weekly test, dam safety monitoring was never interrupted."

SPU added further, that since last July, staff have met with Carnation officials and community members and went over plans for short-term repairs and long-term upgrades.

Mayor Kim Lisk said city officials have been working closely with SPU on making improvements to close in on the communication gap.

The Told Dam Warning System will be addressed during Tuesday night’s Carnation City Council meeting, and a representative from SPU will attend the virtual meeting.