May 30, 2024
“It's a multi-pronged approach, because no one tool is going to reach everybody.”

As Maui recovers from the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the last century, many have criticized Hawaiian officials for not sounding the island’s emergency sirens — prompted by fears of unintentionally sending residents towards the flames.

That disaster led San Francisco leaders this week to reinvigorate long-overdue repairs to the city’s World War II-era siren system — an early warning service not every county across the Bay Area is equipped to offer.

Instead, a patchwork of old-school and cutting-edge alert systems have been implemented across Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — culminating in a hodgepodge of sirens, loudspeakers, social media, texts and even doorbells to warn residents of impending disaster.

By 2008, emergency coordinators in San Mateo County had installed eight sirens along its low-lying coastline that are sounded exclusively for tsunami warnings, according to coordinators Rick Reed and Jeff Norris. Rather than set up even more sirens for other hazards, the county has prioritized alerting residents using bullhorns on officer patrol cars and location-based alert systems connected to cell phones and other wireless devices. There’s an important reason for that, Norris said.

“The problem with using fixed sirens for any other evacuation notice is that they are very indiscriminate about the areas they cover and really don’t give you any direction of what is the safe route,” Norris said. “It’s a multi-pronged approach, because no one tool is going to reach everybody.”

Over in the East Bay, residents in cities such as Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda were primed in 2003 to hear warning wails from a local network of interconnected sirens, dubbed the “Corridor of Safety,” that were deployed due to the area’s increased risk of catastrophic wildfire. Alameda and San Leandro have since deactivated their siren systems.

Most recently, Berkeley went one step further and started work to install 15 battery- and solar-powered sirens that can wail out “spoken” notifications. The $1.97 million investment in these “long-range acoustic devices” will complement other local emergency systems such as AC Alert, Nixle, ZoneHaven, which broadcast digitally produced evacuation maps and real-time guides, Assistant Fire Chief Keith May said.

Although they won’t be able to stop catastrophic events such as the East Bay firestorm that blazed through the Oakland-Berkeley hills in 1991 — killing 25 people and destroying almost 3,000 homes — officials hope they’ll save lives and minimize damage, because as soon as a dangerous weather system “comes down the mountain, it’s moving fast.”

Karl Mondon — staff archivesOakland hills residents flee burning homes Oct. 20, 1991, during that year’s Oakland/Berkeley hills firestorm that burned 18,000 acres, destroyed 3,500 homes and killed 25 people. The North Hills Community Association, which supports the area where much of the devastation occurred, is inviting Oakland and Berkeley residents to join them Oct. 17 as the disaster’s 30th anniversary approaches for a Community Comeback Picnic at Lake Temescal. 

The proposed benefits of these costly voice-powered sirens haven’t persuaded leaders in San Jose and the greater South Bay to tap into that kind of tech, which isn’t always compatible with existing systems. Instead, many regional emergency operations leaders have doubled down on local alerts that can be customized to better target specific communities in harm’s way.

When inclement weather, earthquakes, wildfires or floods strike Santa Clara County, officials don’t plan to rely on the 38 “civil defense” sirens that have sat dormant since the Cold War.

Instead, residents are guided by Alert SCC — a dynamic messaging system coordinated between a mix of local fire departments, law enforcement agencies, transportation officials and others inside the county’s Emergency Operation Center.

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In addition to blasting out multilingual messages to cell phones, social media pages, emails, the county’s website and even landlines, Kia Xiong, the county’s emergency risk communications officer, said staff alerts at-risk communities through a mix of mobile amplified blow horns, vehicle-mounted sirens, push notification systems and even outreach teams assigned to homeless encampments and to knock on residents’ front doors.

That more tailored approach, Xiong said, helps share the most accurate information with as few steps and redundancies as possible. Alert SCC is tested monthly.

“We want to make sure that we are alerting the right community members when there’s an emergency or disaster within their area,” Xiong said. “But we also want to make sure that we’re not notifying the wrong community to evacuate when it’s not necessary.”

Unfortunately, she said, Santa Clara County’s system relies upon residents to opt in for alert messages — which is different than universal warnings such as Amber Alerts that are pushed to all nearby screens. Xiong said that’s because local emergency warnings do not meet the state’s strict criteria for such mandatory notifications.

That lack of “opt-in” engagement is a statewide problem.

In 2020, less than 25% of adults had signed up for dozens of opt-in county emergency alert systems, even in fire-prone areas, according to a CalMatters report. At the time, enrollment rates were less than 1% in Fresno, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

On Wednesday, Xiong said 98,064 people are signed up for Alert SCC — less than 10% of the county’s own lists of residents.

Since the 1990s, Contra Costa County has operated its own expansive Community Warning System that currently boasts the ability to blast messages across a map of 43 sirens installed from El Cerrito to Richmond to Martinez, alongside alerts sent over TV, radio and cellular signals.

The CWS, which local officials claim is “one of the nation’s most modern and effective-all hazard public warning systems,” can inform residents to shelter in place or evacuate or offer other alerts amid dangers such as wildfires and hazardous explosions, especially because the area is home to many non-English speakers who live in close proximity to thousands of industrial plants and refineries.

As other East Bay cities installed their own systems in the early 2000s, then-CWS manager Art Botterell told the Contra Costa Times that the trick to reaching the most people possible is having more than one technology at the ready, especially because those siren systems can malfunction, which happened as recently as 2016. His view has held up as Bay Area counties continue to diversify their emergency warnings.

“People require corroboration before they pack up and move out of their house,” Botterell said. “They need something else after a telephone call, like seeing fire down their street or hearing a siren.”