Sounding the alarm
Kenwood residents call for siren in case of emergency, but maybe it’s not that simple
“We just can’t start blowing the horn without the community knowing what it means or what to do,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach told about 20 local residents at an April 29 meeting hosted by the Kenwood Fire Department. “Over history, the siren was meant to call volunteers. We’ve never trained anybody to use it differently. That would create problems, especially at night.” Would people know to evacuate? Would people call the fire station looking for more instructions?
On Oct. 8, 2017, the night the infamous Nuns Fire began, Bellach was deployed to the first call received – a report of flames near Nuns Canyon Road; there was no one at the fire station who could have directed residents responding to a wailing siren where to evacuate or what to do. The station’s siren was turned off at night about 15 years ago due to the fire department getting too many complaints, said Bellach; it only sounds between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Kenwood isn’t the only community having this conversation in the wake of the massive wildfires two years ago that burned approximately 90,000 acres, 6,900 structures, killed 25 people, and exposed weaknesses in both local and the countywide emergency plans. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who attended the Kenwood meeting to listen, but ended up addressing plenty of pointed questions from frustrated residents, said that Glen Ellen and Oakmont residents have also called for the installation of emergency warning sirens. The Weekly Calistogan reported in April that the city of Calistoga is considering purchasing new emergency warning sirens. Loch Lomond, Cobb, Anderson Springs, and Middletown in Lake County installed sirens in March 2018. The city of San Francisco and the county of Contra Costa both have emergency siren systems.
The county is seeking grant money from the federal government for the design and installation of sirens around Sonoma County, Christopher Godley, the county’s emergency management director, told the audience at a May 4 preparedness meeting in Sonoma hosted by Susan Gorin. “But they aren’t going to go in everywhere. Not everyone is going to get a siren,” he added. If funding is received this fall, the process could take two to three years. The county’s priorities are high natural hazard areas, whether it be tsunami, flood, or fire. Those locations are under analysis now.
Bellach said that to implement an effective emergency warning siren in Kenwood, it would take a lot more than just turning on the 50-year-old mechanical siren currently housed at the Randolph Avenue station. The current siren’s 15-foot tower isn’t tall enough for all residents in the neighboring areas of Kenwood village to hear – in fact, there would need to be more than one siren in town to effectively reach all residents.
Then, there are costs associated with obtaining a siren (or sirens) that would be able to give off more than one sound (the current mechanical siren at the fire station cannot). There are thousands of different models available. Godley said a desirable siren might cost $40,000, although Federal Signal, the manufacturer of the siren under consideration in Calistoga, said the models they offer communities range from $15,000-$18,000. Installation estimates range from $8,000-$20,000. That doesn’t include annual maintenance costs, which can run $1,000-$5,000, according to Godley.
Then there are the questions of how the sirens would be activated (the current siren is not “turned on” at the fire station, but activated by Redcom Dispatch in Santa Rosa) and where they would be located. Topography – mountains and canyons – as well as weather (wind), complicates how sound travels. All sirens need infrastructure to operate, i.e., electricity, and a back up system in case the power goes out, as it did on Oct. 8.
“We can’t implement a siren locally until we know where to put it, who will pay to maintain it and do the maintenance, and what it means when it’s used,” said Bellach.
This wasn’t an answer many of the longtime Kenwood residents at the meeting wanted to hear, especially facing down this year’s impending fire season with Cal Fire again predicting “above normal significant large fire potential in June and July.”
Isn’t something better than nothing?Longtime Treehaven resident Mary Caughey said that had the siren sounded on the night of Oct. 8, she would have known something was wrong. Instead, she spent 30 minutes wringing her hands in front of the fire station wondering if the faint glow she saw in the distance was an emergency that warranted her calling friends and neighbors to wake them up at 11 p.m. on a school night.
“Even if not everyone hears [the siren],” said another neighbor, “If we can, we, in turn, can save other lives.”
“People with sirens grow complacent,” said Godley during a later interview. “Sirens give people a false sense of security.” They think the siren will always be there, it will always work, and they will always hear it (no matter the conditions), he said. But officials can’t guarantee that, and sometimes that can do harm.
Sirens can fail. “They work about 95 percent of the time,” Godley said at the May 4 meeting. “That’s good, unless you’re the five percent. Because you’re waiting for that siren to go off. You know the county is going to turn on the siren if it’s really dangerous. What if we just can’t turn it on? What if we lose connectivity? Or if this siren is broken?”
To that point, in November 2016, several of Contra Costa’s sirens malfunctioned, sounding off accidentally for three minutes, telling thousands of people to stay inside their homes, according to KQED news.
Even if Kenwood fire department could raise the money necessary to install a siren (or sirens) sufficient to alert the population, there’s the issue of who would control it. According to state law, evacuation signals of any sort fall under the management of law enforcement, said Godley. Here in Kenwood, that’s the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, not the Kenwood Fire Department. A police chief has the authority to conduct an evacuation; a fire chief does not.
With this in mind, the county completed in April the installation of new two-tone sirens on all sheriff patrol vehicles as a “localized auditory warning component.” They will begin an outreach and community education campaign about what the sounds mean before this fire season, said Godley.
“Audible warnings are one method to alert people something is happening,” said Godley – emphasis on alert. They do not tell people what to do.
Sirens are only a part of itSirens are just one part of improving the county’s “robust, redundant” emergency warning system, one of some 300 different action items officials identified in the wake of the 2017 fires. As of April, the county has also received funds and equipment to grow its network of fire cameras in Sonoma and Lake counties, with plans to add one to the top of Sonoma Mountain, and to conduct another test of its cellphone-based notification system, called SoCo Alert, before this year’s fire season begins. When it was tested last September, of the 290,052 calls sent out, 51 percent successfully reached a person or answering machine. To complicate matters, telecommunication providers’ participation in these tests are completely voluntary.
Emergency personnel during both the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise reported this same disconnect; alerts can be successfully deployed, but infrastructure failure can get in the way of their delivery.
When it comes down to it, predicting the unpredictable and being prepared for every variation of emergency situation is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. And just like in a rapid-fire whack-a-mole game, the more paddles and hands – or tools – you have, the more your chances improve.
That is why Godley and Gorin are still pressing hard for residents to sign up for SoCo Alert (at socoalerts.org) and the regional Nixle alerts (by texting your zip code to 888777) on their cell phones. The SoCo Alert system is more geo-specific than the Nixle service, said Godley, and he recommends signing up for both, and bookmarking socoemergency.org, where the county will host real-time emergency updates, and follow local law enforcement and fire departments on all social media channels.
Even then, there are no guarantees. “If fire spreads rapidly enough or if PGE turns off power during red flag warnings, the (cellphone alert) system will probably not work,” he said. Many people do not get cell service without power since cell towers only have three to five hours of battery life.
Sonoma Valley’s limited cell reception already makes delivery of cell-based alerts challenging, and without electricity no one will be checking their NextDoor account for very long.
Knowing no one system is foolproof, both Gorin and Bellach emphasized that the onus is on individuals within the community to take the action to prepare for the next emergency – neighbors knocking on the doors of neighbors – which, incidentally, is how most people said they found out about the Nuns fire in the first place.
This also means being aware when a Red Flag Warning is in effect, staying up and doing fire watches on those nights, and being ready to evacuate quickly, said Bellach.
Gorin urged people to get to know your neighbors by organizing a COPE (Citizen Organized to Prevent Emergencies) group or a fire safe council, both great ways to accomplish community education and fire mitigation projects within your neighborhood.
“I think it’s more than we can expect from our emergency service providers for them to do all the things we’d like,” said Gorin.
For the fire department’s part, the community can expect statewide task forces to be staged in local areas during red flag warnings this fire season, said Bellach. The state has committed $50 million to improve the Mutual Aid system with the aim of having fire personnel respond in minutes versus hours. This policy update was not in place during October 2017.
Stay tunedGorin has promised to arrange another Kenwood community meeting with Godley present so neighbors can have their concerns addressed directly. As of press time, no date had been set. Chief Bellach agreed to discuss the issue of sirens in Kenwood at a future board of directors meeting. As of press time, no date had been set.
“My biggest concern is your safety; believe me, I lose sleep over it” said Bellach.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.