Listeners to Cayman’s radio stations will hear interruptions to their usual programmes over three days in the coming week as the islands’ National Emergency Notification System is tested.

Hazard Management Cayman Islands and the Department of Public Safety and Communication will begin testing the radio alert system this week. The system is designed to interrupt all local radio transmissions to broadcast public safety information in the event of a disaster.

The first test will be held on Friday, 30 Aug., and will consist of an attention signal tone only.

On Tuesday, 3 Sept. at 11:30am, listeners will hear an attention signal tone and a spoken message. Then on Friday, 6 Sept., at 11:30am, there will again be an attention signal tone and a message.

The messages, which will begin and end with three beeps, will say: “This is the Cayman Islands Government with a coordinated test of the National Emergency Notification System. Broadcasters are testing equipment used to warn you during an emergency. This concludes the test.”

According to Hazard Management, the National Emergency Notification System, known as NENS, is being implemented as a means to convey public safety messages to as wide an audience as possible in the Cayman Islands “in an efficient and timely manner”.

The system could be used in the event of disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, as well as incidents like road accidents, chemical spills and fires.

There had been widespread criticism of the level of communication from officials during a 2017 fire at Jackson Point fuel depot that led to an evacuation of neighbouring homes and businesses in the South Church Street area. Similar concerns were also expressed about the speed of emergency communications during a tsunami scare in January last year.

Required by law

Hazard Management noted that the NENS system is required by law – specifically under the Disaster Preparedness and Hazard Management Law (2019 Revision), which states: “There shall be established a National Emergency Notification System (NENS) for the Islands operated under the supervision of the Director (of Hazard Management Cayman Islands). The National Emergency Notification System shall enable the Government to broadcast emergency announcements to the public on such frequency or in such manner as is specified in a memorandum of understanding between the Government and a person who is licensed to operate an ICT Network under the Information and Communications Technology Authority Law (2019 Revision).”

Any announcement broadcast on NENS must first be in writing and approved and signed by the chairman of the Management Executive or the chairman of the Management Council in consultation with the director of Hazard Management. An exception to this requirement can be made in the event of a sudden onset of a potential disaster, like a tsunami or an earthquake, which requires swift notification to the public. In those circumstances, the director may authorise the broadcast of an emergency announcement.

Once authorised by either chairman, in consultation with the Hazard Management director, the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, the Cayman Islands Fire Service, the Department of Environment, the Department of Environmental Health, the Health Services Authority and the Cayman Islands National Weather Service can request the use of the NENS system to deliver vital public safety messages if the need arises.

First phase

The test radio broadcasts over the next week are part of Phase 1 of the emergency alert project.

According to Hazard Management, all licensed radio operators in the Cayman Islands are required to sign a memorandum of understanding with the government as a stipulation of their licence agreement under the ICTA Law and in accordance with the Disaster Preparedness and Hazard Management Law. “[T]hat is about all they need to do other than occasionally allowing technicians to check that the equipment is working, and replacing parts if necessary,” Hazard Management stated.

A statement from the organisation read: “Government of course recognizes that residents are not always tuned into the radio, but it is an important first step, and the Cayman Islands will be one of the first countries in the Caribbean to have a National Alert System in place.

“Radio is also a very important communications vehicle in the aftermath of a disaster, especially if there is an extended power outage. Radio stations can typically get signals out to the public using a generator if they have to, ensuring that residents will still receive critical messages even with a battery-operated radio. It also provides a cost-effective solution and is robust.”

The next phase in the NENS system will involve cable television channels, which would show crawling text across the screen. Hazard Management stated that an emergency app also is planned whereby residents who sign up for the app will receive emergency messages to their smartphones.

“All these different mechanisms to deliver emergency alerts will originate from a single dashboard – in other words, a single message can be sent simultaneously across multiple channels – such as the radio, cable television and to the emergency app,” according to Hazard Management.

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