Residents caught up in last night's false alarm in the Bay of Plenty say warning systems need to be perfected before a real emergency strikes.

Tauranga resident Brenda Newman was cleaning up in the kitchen of her Bayfair home when she heard a loud siren go off just after 9pm.

"I thought it was an accident siren [alert] or something. But my husband said: 'No, that's going a bit too long'."

Like many others around the region, the Newmans recognised that the long siren meant a tsunami warning.

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"My husband was training with the fire department for a little while last year and he knew what the sirens were. He said: 'Nah, we've gotta go. We've got to pack up the kids and go'.

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"He actually ran outside and saw a few headlights on in other driveways."

"It started to kick in a bit. Just thinking: 'Ooh, shoot. We better get somewhere higher'. I had my phone in my hand and I was waiting for the message alert - but there was nothing.

No notification or text alert would arrive on her phone, Newman said.

She said that "in less than a minute" they had packed their two young children and a grandchild - all aged under 4 - into the car and were on the road.

She had sent a message to a friend who lives about three blocks away.

That friend said she could not hear a siren. As a result, their family decided to stay home.

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While the Newmans were on the road, the siren stopped. As a precaution, they drove to the local fire station to find out more information.

It was there they were told the alarm - which she guessed sounded continuously for about 20 minutes - was false.

Newman said someone at the fire station said they were getting "hundreds" of calls from people worried and wondering what the alarm meant.

Notices from fire authorities, police and the Civil Defence were later issued to let locals know there was no threat of a tsunami.

From left: Vision, Kingdom and Mystory and their parents / grandparents, Kane and Brenda Newman, were among those who evacuated when sirens rang in Bay of Plenty last night. Photo / Supplied
From left: Vision, Kingdom and Mystory and their parents / grandparents, Kane and Brenda Newman, were among those who evacuated when sirens rang in Bay of Plenty last night. Photo / Supplied

Another family affected in last night's drama was a large group holidaying from Christchurch at Waihī Beach.

One of the group, a woman who wanted to be known only as Anne, said they had five adults and three children aged 8, 10 and 13 who found themselves not only scared but almost helpless when the siren went off.

"It wasn't clear what we were supposed to do with it [the alarm].

"The most annoying thing is that the Civil Defence has a facility where they can text every single person that's got a cell phone.

"Why not text people and say that's a false alarm? Nobody kind of knew what was going on and there is a facility there to send a quick text saying: 'Sorry, false alarm' or 'there's a tsunami warning - go'."

She said there had been no shaking to indicate there had been an earthquake. If there had been, they would have been out of there immediately, she said.

But because it was just the alarm going off and even the locals did not know exactly what that meant, they were not sure what action they should take.

Residents in the Bay of Plenty, including from Waihi Beach (pictured) evacuated last night after sirens rang out just after 9pm. Photo / George Novak
Residents in the Bay of Plenty, including from Waihi Beach (pictured) evacuated last night after sirens rang out just after 9pm. Photo / George Novak

Further update from Fire and Emergency New Zealand: Fire and Emergency New Zealand understands a number of sirens were...

Posted by Bay of Plenty Civil Defence on Sunday, 19 January 2020

Eventually, they all left and went up to the local fire station - only to be told by staff that they had no idea what the siren was about either and that it was likely a false alarm.

"Our grandchildren were quite upset about it because the adults did not know what they were doing and their cavalier attitude like: 'Oh, it wasn't the real thing'.

The National Emergency Management Agency says on its website that the emergency mobile alert sends out messages about emergencies by authorised emergency agencies to capable mobile phones.

"The alerts can be targeted to areas affected by serious hazards and will only be sent when there is a serious threat to life, health or property and, in some cases, for test purpose," the website reads.

EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE ALERTED

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Newman wants better alarm and alert systems to be put in place for future emergencies - particularly making sure that everyone was alerted to a situation.

Although some people had chosen to evacuate, others were at a loss as to what they should do as they waited for instruction from a text alert or notification on their cell phone.

Other people, however, were unaware of the situation.

"It's pretty poor. They need to be accountable for this and just reassure everybody that they can sort something out for us," Newman said.

"There are so many elderly people who don't have phones - how would they know?"

Notification systems needed to take those kinds of factors into account, she said, suggesting maybe more sirens needed to be placed around the community so everyone could hear an alarm the next time it went off.

FIRE AUTHORITIES AND CIVIL DEFENCE INVESTIGATING:

Fire and Emergency New Zealand has apologised to the public for the false alarm, saying the sirens had been triggered in error.

It was not known whether that was human error or a technological one.

FENZ chief executive Rhys Jones said: "This should not have happened and I apologise to Bay of Plenty people who were affected.

"We take this false alarm very seriously. We are investigating the case and because our sirens are linked to a nationwide emergency alert system, we will also work with other responding partners."