The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 Firestorm. Unlike neighboring cities, Berkeley does not have its own disaster warning siren. Photo: Copyright Richard Misrach

Those who remember the 1991 Oakland firestorm racing toward the Claremont Hotel, leaving behind a path of death and destruction, understand how fast disaster can strike. Recent climate change-driven fires of historic proportions across Northern California have only underlined the urgency with which officials need to prepare to avoid becoming the next Paradise.

And that’s before you consider the Hayward Fault, which runs along the foot of the East Bay hills, including directly under the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium, and which has been called a “tectonic time bomb” by at least one scientist. Its last major earthquake occurred on Oct.21, 1868, and the fault will slip again someday, triggering a potentially massive quake.

Unlike those that are operated by Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco and UC Berkeley, the city of Berkeley does not have its own disaster warning siren. But it is now looking into getting one.

The city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission has recommended the city “immediately” begin the process of purchasing and installing an outdoor warning system to alert the public when disaster looms. The City Council heard the recommendation at its May 14 meeting.

“The community needs to be properly warned of impending disasters.” — Keith May, Berkeley Fire

“(The safety commission) has brought this item to the council in light of the recent fires in California,” Keith May, spokesman for the Berkeley Fire Department and secretary to the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, told Berkeleyside. “They strongly believe that the community needs to be properly warned of impending disasters.”

The council referred it to Berkeley’s Public Safety Committee.

Along with buying the system, the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission recommended in its report that the city implement an outreach and education program to help residents understand the meaning of the sirens and how to respond to them. The city should reach out to deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, so they can use alternative in-home alert devices, the report said.

“We have held community meetings, work seminars and trainings on wildfire preparedness,” said May. “Learn, prepare, practice, and be aware of our overriding message.”

The recommendation “doesn’t specify the number, type, or location of the sirens.”

In 2004, the city estimated that a 23-siren system would cost $801,000, which translates as $1.1 million in today’s dollars. The report said a similar proposal in Sonoma County was recently estimated to cost $850,000 for a 20-siren system.

“Berkeley faces a serious threat from a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire that has increased for many reasons, including the growth of fuel that is happening as a result of recent rains,” reads the report. “Based on recent experiences in the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2018 Camp Fire, it’s clear that a wildfire in Berkeley would spread very quickly, expanding at many miles per hour and requiring a rapid evacuation of a large number of residents. This is especially likely in the designated Hazardous Fire Zones in the hills, but an intense and fast-moving fire threatens the entire city of Berkeley, including the flats.”

“The campus siren and public address is tested once a month,” said UCPD spokesman Nicolas Hernandez. [On the first Wednesday of every month at noon.] “It can be activated by the police department from anywhere on campus.”UC Berkeley currently uses the WarnMe system which, along with the outdoor sirens, sends text messages or emails to students, staff and faculty “when there is an immediate threat to safety or the health affecting the campus community,” according to the company’s UC Berkeley webpage. Information and directions would be available through campus radio, a dedicated telephone outgoing message, and an emergency information website.

The city is already working on a draft Wildfire Evacuation Plan and is re-examining all its notification options, some of which require opting in by residents.

The new report points out that, during the 2017 fires in the North Bay, only 51% of the 290,000 emergency alert calls made to residents reached a human or an answering machine. In 2018’s Camp Fire, “failure rates for alerts reportedly ranged from 25% to 94%.” Which explains why Berkeley is exploring multiple methods of notification.

“Sirens, historically, have been used to alert a community to do the same thing, no matter the emergency,” said May. “For example, in the Midwest – where sirens are used for hurricane-laden areas — if you heard the siren, you would know to go to the storm basement. For those who lives in ocean-front areas, in tsunami-prone areas, the siren tells them to move to higher ground.

“This is not the case for earthquake country or firestorm areas, where the messages could vary for one of these disasters.”

The Berkeley Fire Department has been considering warning sirens since January 2018.

“A modern outdoor siren system, designed to blanket all of Berkeley in sound, would provide an additional layer of coverage where other systems fail,” the report says. “Sirens can also provide redundancy if other communication channels are disabled due to power outage or cell tower disruption.”

The report says that there’s evidence that sirens could be heard indoors. “Practical experience and the results of tests by the federal Emergency Management Agency and others have shown that siren sounds are quite effective for alerting large populations – including those indoors.”

Berkeley CERT training, here in May 2013, is one way residents can prepare for disasters. Photo: Emilie Raguso

According to the commission, city staff would decide what type of alert to send out and how localized and how imminent the danger is. Multiple tones could be used, depending on the specific type of emergency. Besides warning about fires, chemical spills and other hazards, a system could also be integrated with developing earthquake alert systems, something that is already done in Mexico City.

The recommendation doesn’t specify the exact criteria for determining when an alert would be activated but, when developed, they would be “fully and clearly documented in writing.” The system would be tested on a regular basis.

The city considered warning sirens back in 2004, but the Emergency Services Manager at the time recommended against them, instead saying the city should explore using mobile sirens or weather radios. Neither idea materialized and, as the report points out, climate change has worsened fire conditions in Northern California. As well as sirens, the city is also examining using emerging smart-phone technology, possibly in conjunction with the sirens. Berkeley already has that capability with its Nixle alerts, but frequently people have to opt-in to receive phone warnings.

“Fires are bigger, faster, and more intense; firefighters in the 2018 Camp Fire reported that they had never seen a fire move so quickly,” it says. “The length of wildfire season has expanded to be nearly year-round. With the continuing effects of climate change, scientists suggest that fires will continue to be a worsening threat.”

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...