Berkeley CERT training, shown here in May 2013, is one way the city prepares for disasters. A new alerting system is another way residents can ensure they are ready. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The city of Berkeley has just launched a new disaster alert system set to replace the old way of spreading the word about emergencies.

The system, called AC Alert, will take the place of the Berkeley Emergency Notification System, which had a number of limitations, on July 1. The Berkeley Police Department will continue to use the Nixle system for the time being, though Nixle and AC Alert may become integrated down the line.

The city says AC Alert is the “most essential” alert system for Berkeleyans to subscribe to. For those worried about notification overload, the city promises emergency messages will focus only on “critical health and safety” incidents, and will be “rare.”

The only kicker is that council is set to vote Tuesday evening about whether to approve the funding source for AC Alert, which is paid for through Bay Area UASI. The Berkeley City Council has been trying to decide whether to continue with the program, which first responders say provides important public safety support, information and resources. Local activists have said the program is overly militaristic and too focused on the targeting of vulnerable communities.

The city says AC Alert will allow it to reach residents “with urgent information regarding earthquakes, wildfires or other natural or man-made disasters.” The system can send alerts by phone, text and email, and through messages for the hearing and speech impaired (TTY/TDD).

Deputy Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said AC Alert will also give the city access to the wireless emergency alerting system, used for circumstances such as Amber Alerts for missing children, that only the county can authorize. The push to move to AC Alert dates back to the 2012 Chevron refinery fire, he said, after a grand jury said local jurisdictions needed to work together under a unified county alert system in the interest of public safety. Alameda County agencies and the 14 cities in the county are all taking part, according to the AC Alert website.

Berkeley’s old system, BENS, will be discontinued in a few weeks, Brannigan said. The new approach is more robust, reliable and modern than what the city has been working with up to this point, he added.

Unlike BENS, AC Alert can also be used in non-emergency situations to share different kinds of information, he said, for those who wish to get that too. On the AC Alert website, individuals can sign up for four types of alerts at this time: events and information, public safety, traffic alerts and police advisories. Live in one city but work in another and want to get a variety of alerts? You can sign up for all the AC Alert options from your subscription page.

Brannigan said anyone with a traditional AT&T landline will automatically be enrolled to get the new emergency alerts. Those landlines will not receive the other kinds of alerts unless AT&T customers manually sign up for them, however. And people with unlisted landlines, mobile phones, VOIP lines such as U-verse, or services like Skype will need to go online and manually sign themselves up if they want AC Alert information.

In addition, people who previously signed up for BENS will need to sign up again for AC Alert. There’s no way to manually roll over the membership, Brannigan said. A BENS message should also go out from the city in the next week or so to alert users of BENS about the change.

He said AC Alert will save the city $25,000 a year, which is the cost of BENS.

More resources

For those looking for more public safety news from the city, Berkeley is now on Twitter, as is — as of recently — the Berkeley Police Department and Berkeley police chief. The city also offers email updates about all types of news. Berkeley Fire posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook through its firefighter association.

Those concerned about disaster preparedness may also want to have a look at the NorCal Community Resilience Network and the Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network (BDPNN). BDPNN’s next monthly meeting is June 28, followed by its annual meeting June 29, focused on “Evacuation Routes.” You can also “like” BDPNN on Facebook.

Learn more about AC Alert on the city website, and on the AC Alert website. Learn more about all the emergency alerting options offered by the city. Looking for training and other resources? The Berkeley CERT program may be for you.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...