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

A planned network of emergency warning sirens that will alert residents to fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and more by broadcasting spoken, hyperlocal evacuation messages is slowly coming to Berkeley.

The new outdoor warning system is intended to be another tool in officials’ toolbox for emergency notification, working in tandem with AC Alerts, Nixle, Zonehaven, radio broadcasts, social media and door-knocking. Capable of running on solar-powered battery backup and being controlled remotely via satellite, the system has the benefit of reaching people who may not have signed up for AC Alerts and providing another layer of coverage should other alerting systems fail. 

Last September, the City Council approved a $1.97 million contract to put in 15 sirens across the city. The sirens’ first five locations have now been chosen: Fire Station No. 7 and the upper campus of Zaytuna College in the Berkeley Hills, City Hall in downtown, Berkeley Animal Care in West Berkeley and the Harbormaster’s office at the Berkeley Marina.

The sirens are capable of broadcasting at over half a mile radius, though exact ranges vary based on topography and points of obstruction. The locations for the first five sirens were chosen with an eye toward “equity disbursement around the city,” said Berkeley Fire Assistant Chief Keith May.  

Four of the five locations chosen are on city-owned properties, which May said he thought would mean an “easier and less time-consuming” process in getting the sirens ready to broadcast during fire season and other life-threatening situations.

May told Berkeleyside last summer he hoped the sirens would be installed by the end of 2021. But he said the city planning department has yet to finish the permitting process for the sirens. Now he said he hopes to see at least one siren running by the end of this summer and all 15 by the end of summer 2023. “I’m being optimistic,” May said. “It just depends on the process, which I don’t have control over.” 

Some of the remaining locations, which have yet to be finalized, will be on Berkeley Unified School District land, which means the fire department will need to go through the Division of the State Architect for permitting.

Genasys, the company that will build and install the outdoor warning system, is also the vendor for Zonehaven, the county’s evacuation software system. Launched about a year ago. Zonehaven divides Berkeley into 78 evacuation zones, with residents asked to memorize the number of their zone. In an emergency, officials will be able to use the sirens to direct people in Berkeley to evacuate based on where they live or work.  

The outdoor warning system is being funded through Measure FF, which was approved by voters in November 2020 to fund firefighter and emergency response and “wildfire prevention and preparedness activities including, but not limited to, vegetation management, hazard mitigation, public education, evacuation planning, and an emergency alert system.”

To learn more about disaster preparedness, you can visit the city’s Fire Weather and Evacuation website. You’re encouraged to sign up to receive AC Alerts from all devices, and bookmark the Zonehaven website, which will be used during emergencies to post real-time, zone-specific evacuation warnings and orders.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...