Los Gatos Weekly Times

Bay Area alert systems viewed as spotty

- By Katie Lauer klauer@ bayareanew­sgroup.com

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 toward 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 lowlying coastline that are sounded exclusivel­y for tsunami warnings, according to coordinato­rs Rick Reed and Jeff Norris. Rather than set up more sirens for other hazards, the county has prioritize­d alerting residents using bullhorns on officer patrol cars and locationba­sed 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 and Zonehaven, which broadcast digitally-produced evacuation maps and realtime 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.”

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.

In addition to blasting out multilingu­al messages to cellphones, 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 Aug. 23, 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.

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 ?? RICK BOWMER — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Summer Gerlingpic­ks up her piggy bank found in the rubble of her home following the wildfire Aug. 10 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town.
RICK BOWMER — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Summer Gerlingpic­ks up her piggy bank found in the rubble of her home following the wildfire Aug. 10 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from wildfires on Maui that wiped out a historic town.

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