Berkeley’s emergency sirens will look similar to this system, made by the company Genasys, that was installed in Mill Valley. Credit: Genasys

A new way to alert Berkeley residents about fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and other emergencies and disasters is slated to launch this year, providing hyperlocal voice instructions on what to do and where to go.

The city is finalizing the details of installing a network of emergency warning sirens citywide, said Assistant Fire Chief Keith May. He hopes they’ll be up and running by the end of the year.

“I think our mindset is to use it for life-threatening situations only,” May said. “Evacuate now or prepare to evacuate.”

The sirens, a dozen or more are expected, will blast alert beeps as well as short pre-recorded voice messages. Each siren, or speaker, can be programmed independently, so alerts can target the surrounding neighborhood, based on need.

“We’re not sure what that wording will be — as simple as: ‘There is a fire in Tilden Park, these zones [naming numbers] evacuate,” May said, adding that Berkeley is looking at other cities with the same system to learn what voice messages work best.

No power? No problem.

One of the main motivations for getting a siren alert system for Berkeley, May said, is its capacity to work when the power goes out.

The city is contracting with a company called Genasys, to provide the system, which operates by standard electricity and by solar-powered battery backup. The contract is in the works, but not yet finalized, May said. “It’s moving forward, but it’s going to take some time.”

Each siren has a battery and solar panel. If power goes out, they still function.

The sirens also have satellite communication capability, which means they can be worked remotely via satellite if there is no wireless service.

Genasys recently purchased Zonehaven evacuation software, another new addition to the city’s emergency planning toolbox that helps emergency planners decide where, if and when to order evacuations. The two systems — outdoor sirens and Zonehaven — will work together, May said.

Under Zonehaven, a system for all of Alameda County that went live today, Berkeley has been divided into predetermined evacuation zones. If part of the city needs to evacuate, the siren’s voice message will be directed to those zones, May said. This alert will be added to other modes such as AC Alerts, Nixle and door-knocking.

Every resident of Berkeley and Alameda County is being asked to memorize the number of their evacuation zone, just announced today. Click on the map to view a zoomable version. Credit: Zonehaven

This week, Alameda County is launching a “Know Your Zone” campaign to encourage residents to memorize the Zonehaven zone number where they live or work.

“We anticipate being able to use the speaker system to give the public or the community which zones need to evacuate or prepare to evacuate. We won’t have one speaker system per zone. But they cover a pretty wide area,” May said.

The city is also exploring the distribution of battery-operated weather radios, which can send alerts.

Voter-approved funding

The siren system is funded through Measure FF, approved by voters in November. The parcel tax measure, estimated to generate $8.5 million annually, is slated for a variety of emergency services, including “wildfire prevention and preparedness activities including, but not limited to, vegetation management, hazard mitigation, public education, evacuation planning, and an emergency alert system.”

The initial cost of installing the sirens is around $2 million, which covers equipment, hardware and software, May said. There are also annual service and licensing fees, with the final price tag depending on the number of speakers. The city is still finalizing this, but May expects at least 14 sites, with total annual costs at around $40,000 to $45,000.

As part of its service, Genasys recommended locations for Berkeley’s speakers, covering all parts of the city. So far, known locations include the Harbormaster’s office at the Berkeley Marina, Fire Station No. 7 at 3000 Shasta Road near the border with Tilden Park and City Hall, May said. The city is negotiating with the Berkeley Unified School District and others for additional sites.

The exact sirens placed, the number of speakers, height and angle, will depend on the location. The solar panels are about 12 feet by 12 feet.

California cities using the same system include Mill Valley and Laguna Beach. Oakland has a new siren system, which doesn’t include voice messages, and Contra Costa County has had a siren system for years, which is often activated for industrial incidents. San Francisco has also long had a voice-capable siren system.

In 2019, Berkeley’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission urged the mayor and city council to install an outdoor warning system, integrating it with the city’s existing emergency response plan.

In its recommendation to the council, the commission said, in part: “Due to various failures and limitations of emergency alerting, many survivors after the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2018 Camp Fire were left wondering why they did not receive any alert at all. These experiences and tragic outcomes strengthen the importance of redundancy through multiple alert methods. A modern outdoor siren system, designed to blanket all of Berkeley in sound, would provide an additional layer of coverage where other systems may fail. Sirens can also provide redundancy if other communication channels are disabled due to power outage or cell tower disruption.”

Filling the opt-in gap

When the siren system is up and running, the city will have a variety of ways to alert residents of emergencies. This includes AC Alerts, the county system that notifies people with calls, text messages and emails, and Nixle, a similar system used by Berkeley police that includes non-emergency messages on traffic and local crimes.

Even door-to-door knocking for evacuation alerts will interface with Zonehaven, as the software system provides real-time information to guide emergency responders on neighborhoods at highest risk.

May, Berkeley’s assistant fire chief, acknowledges some residents may get confused by all the alerts. But for most emergency planners, he said, the more ways of getting  the word out in an emergency, the better. “It’s challenging for emergency managers to find that sweet spot of over-scaring the public but getting them to take action when it’s needed.”

Experience shows that in emergencies, people seek information from multiple sources such as the media, neighbors and family. And they want to verify what they’re hearing. “They do want multiple authoritative sources [of information],” May said.

May said sirens should help with a major weakness in existing alerting systems such as AC Alerts. With sirens, people don’t need to sign up or opt in before an emergency.

In an ideal emergency planning world, people will have to opt out of alerts, not in, he said.

“I would love to see an opt-out platform where people in our city are already signed up for AC Alerts and have to go in to opt out of it.”

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...