Forget a siren, get a radio
County, fire officials push personal responsibility, redundancy as keys to fire preparedness
Sarah C. Phelps
Residents rooting for the installation of an emergency alert siren in Kenwood were likely disappointed after attending a standing-room-only meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Kenwood firehouse. After much public discourse over the last few months centering on how to alert the town in the event of another conflagration like the October 2017 Nuns Fire, it is pretty clear there will be no emergency siren sounding from the fire station – or anywhere else in Kenwood – this fire season. However, maybe residents can take solace in another option championed by First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority Captain Steve Akre, Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Kirk Van Wormer, and other county and fire officials present at the meeting: go buy yourself a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR).
“The NOAA radio is something each and every one of us can go and purchase right now, put batteries in, and you’re better protected right away,” said Akre. An NWR receives emergency warnings from the nationwide network of radio towers overseen by the National Weather Service, as well as AM and FM channels. When an emergency alert is sent out, the radio sounds an auditory alarm. Some models can be fitted with strobe lights and bed shakers for people hard of hearing. Prices run from $30 to $50 and up, depending on the model.
There are 35 NOAA weather stations in California and it just so happens one of these has been perched atop Sonoma Mountain since 2008. The county’s Emergency Management Department is set to test the efficacy of the NOAA alert system on Sept. 5. Anyone with a NOAA radio tuned to 162.475 MHz should receive a test alert at 10 a.m. that day. The county also will be re-testing the cellphone-based SoCo Alert system on Sept. 5, in the communities of Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Geyerserville only, and will plant staff in those communities with radios to test the two technologies side by side.
Kenwood resident Pete Gruchakwa is skeptical that the NOAA radio tests will be as effective as the county hopes. For five decades, Gruchakwa has managed “essential service” facilities (aka the places where government emergency service providers, and cell phone and ambulance companies, etc., house communication infrastructure). “It depends on how they word [the alert] that will really make it meaningful to you,” said Gruchakwa. If the alert says there is a fire on Kristi Court, what will that mean? Will people know if it’s Kristi Court in Kenwood or Santa Rosa? Also, said Gruchakwa, the National Weather Service (NWS) controls access to all the weather stations, so emergency alerts will have to filter from the local jurisdiction (like a fire department) to central dispatch to the county’s emergency management department, and then to the NWS. “Simpler alert systems are more likely to work better than complex ones,” he said.
Up until recently, the county had been heavily promoting the cell phone-based SoCo Alert (socoalert.org) and Nixle (text your zip code to 888777). The county still recommends opting into both of these; however, questions have recently been raised about inherent weaknesses of cell-based alerts, which rely on electrical power to operate. In May, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) announced that the utility company could de-energize powerlines and transmission lines in certain hazardous weather conditions, potentially affecting thousands of customers for multiple days at a time. Since not all cell towers have two types of backup power (battery and generator), a loss in electricity could potentially affect cell service (battery backups are typically designed to last for only a matter of hours). If a fire breaks out when the power is out, cell-based alerts are no longer the silver bullet they may once have been.
Christopher Godley, director for the county’s Emergency Management Department, said that there were a number of deficiencies uncovered, at both at the county and the federal level, after the county’s test of the SoCo Alert system last September, where just 51 percent of the alerts successfully reached a person or answering machine. The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) has taken notice and is working on legislation to require more from cell companies, but that will take time. Cities are dependent on an alert system designed by the federal government and administered by cell phone companies, said Godley at the meeting. “Your cities are dependent on a warning system that’s outside of their control.”
“These systems do not perform as advertised,” he continued. “If you are putting faith in cell phones, that’s the wrong place to put it.”
Instead, said Godley, the answer is redundancy. “Our goal is to try to get to you 10 different ways, so maybe two to three will get through to you.”
NOAA radios are one option (they operate on a different mechanism than cell towers). SoCo Alert and Nixle are another. The red flags flying over local fire departments are another. Neighbors talking to neighbors is another.
“We will all be paying attention to the red flag, will all be getting Nixle alerts, all have go-bags ready; those are the ways we’ve improved since 2017,” said Akre. “Our situational awareness should be much better than in 2017.”
During a Red Flag Warning, urged Gorin, pull your car out of the garage, facing out of your driveway, and make sure you’ve got a full tank of gas. Chief Bellach has whole-heartedly promoted that residents get up at night and do hourly fire watches during Red Flag Warnings.
“What’s going to carry the day and make a difference, just like it did in 2017, is all of us – people willing to get off the couch and go across the street and knock on a door and say, ‘Did you hear what’s going on?’” said Godley. “The government is going to do its best, but that’s really not the answer here.”
Gruchakwa agrees with the county: “You’re on your own and plan for it,” he said.
The siren’s wail
“They don’t always work, you don’t hear them all, I understand. But a siren [in Kenwood] is part of redundancy,” said one audience member, invoking a buzzword officials had been using throughout the night.
However, throughout the evening, officials deflected questions about sirens or held firm in their comments that a siren was more costly, and less effective, to alert a whole town than some of the other tools now available to residents in Sonoma Valley. When a question was raised about the city of Calistoga’s recent decision to install emergency alert sirens, Bellach said that Calistoga considers the sirens a “pilot program.” “The siren [tower] in Calistoga is also a cell tower,” he added, “So the cost will be offset by the company selling the cell tower.” There has been some public resistance to the siren being coupled with a cell tower, and the siren manufacturer’s applications are still working their way through the city’s system. “So there are a lot of ‘what ifs,’ said Bellach. “It’s a great idea, but will it work? We don’t know yet.”
“My personal opinion,” said Van Wormer, who grew up in Sonoma Valley and has served in fire departments around the valley for decades, “is that sirens mean one thing only when they are used.” In a coastal area, that might be to leave an area. In Kenwood, at the fire station, the siren is used solely to call fire fighters to the station to find out what’s going on. “I understand the desire for a siren in the community, but what are we telling you when we use a siren? Are we telling you what’s going on? Where to go?”
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has just completed installing new “hi/lo” tone sirens on their patrol cars, which it plans to use as a moving alert system. According to state law, law enforcement has the authority to conduct an evacuation; fire departments do not.
“Starting an evacuation is a huge responsibility,” said Wormer. “I have to give you info on where to go, and take care of you once you get there – with food and water.” A siren without a plan isn’t much help at all.
So, what’s the plan?
Officials emphasized that neighborhood organization is key to being prepared, because even if the government can get an early alert out to residents, it is limited in what it can do next.
“Fire is challenging because we can’t give you a map and say you are here, go there,” said Godley. Instead, he said, think about the evacuation routes that make sense to you and your neighbors. Do you have two ways out? If not, do you have a large area where you can go to be safe?
Some neighborhoods, like those on Adobe Canyon Road and in the Trinity and Cavedale road areas, have only one way in and out, which creates a terrifying evacuation situation. The night of Oct. 8, 2017, burning trees fell on Adobe Canyon Road, trapping some who were trying to flee. Godley said the county has identified 24 of these high-risk communities and will be conducting practice evacuation drills with them over the coming months. The first of these drills took place in the Trinity and Cavedale areas on Aug. 24.
Oakmont also has limited evacuation options, acknowledged Gorin, an Oakmont resident herself. Those who tried to leave when the mandatory evacuation was issued in Oakmont in 2017 battled a traffic jam to get onto Highway 12. Gorin reported that Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts, Oakmont resident Cheryl Dean and the Oakmont Village Association have been meeting to address the issue. Ideas that have been floated include utilizing Channel Drive through Trione-Annadel State Park (accessed through the gated Wild Oak neighborhood) or the open space area near Stonebridge Road and Meadowridge Drive, although nothing has been finalized yet.
In Kenwood, Bellach reported that the Kenwood Fire Department is looking to set up two to three predetermined “Temporary Refuge Areas” to act as safe spaces where people can gather, find shelter and get more information about what’s going on. Shaw Park, Kenwood School or St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church might be one of these places, he said. Again, nothing is confirmed yet, but he hopes to announce something in the next few weeks.
“We all have the power within ourselves to be self-aware during fire season,” said Van Wormer. “No one system is going to notify everyone, no one system is going to get the same message deep into Adobe Canyon Road and to Reclamation Road, he added.
A radio, a cell phone, social media, television, neighbors, a go bag, defensible space, SCOPE trainings, these are just tools to use, one of many.
The county has staff available to help neighborhoods develop an evacuation plan, form a fire safe council, or help neighbors work with state and regional parks when vegetation is a concern. Gorin recommended contacting her office or aide Arielle Kubu-Jones (Arielle.firstname.lastname@example.org) with requests for assistance.
Most important to remember, said Van Wormer, “You don’t have to wait until someone else says ‘get out’ to evacuate.”
“No one ever died in a wildfire because they left early,” offered another audience member, paraphrasing a Truckee fire department wildfire training video.
“That’s the message of the night,” agreed Van Wormer.
Purchasing a NOAA radioHaving a NOAA Weather Radio in your home can alert you to many life-threatening situations. Sonoma County is now planning to utilize this technology as one of its ways to distribute local emergency alerts.
Prices run from $30 to $50 and up, depending on the model. “Weather band” radios require being powered on and tuned into a local weather station to receive alerts. A “weather alert” radio automatically and instantly alerts you whether the device is on or not. When an alert is broadcast, a weather alert radio will automatically override all other radio functions and temporarily switch to the NOAA channel and broadcast warnings, alerts, and post-event information.
You can buy portable handheld or desktop models. Among the more useful features in a receiver are:
Tone alarmNOAA will send a tone alarm before most “warning” and many “watch” messages are broadcast. Even if the radio is turned off, the tone will activate, sounding the alert.
Specific Alert Message EncodingThis allows you to specify the particular area for which you wish to receive alerts. Since most NOAA transmitters are broadcasting for a number of counties, SAME receivers will respond only to alerts issued for the area or areas you have selected. This minimizes the number of “false alarms” for events which might be a few counties away.
Selectable alert of eventsSome receivers allow you to turn off the alarm for an event which might not be important to you. For example, if you don’t live near the ocean or tidal valleys, you might not need to be alerted to Coastal Flood Warnings.
Battery backupBecause power outages often occur during storms (or when PG&E deems it necessary to de-energize distribution and transmission lines), battery backup is crucial. However, unless you have a portable unit which you will use away from other power sources, an AC power connection is recommended.
External antenna jackWhile most receivers come with a whip antenna, Sonoma County’s hilly terrain can make reception problematic in some areas. Some receivers come with an external antenna hack that allows you to connect to a larger anntenna indoors or outdoors. NOAA broadcasts are in the Public Service VHF frequencies, just above FM radio and between TV channels 6 and 7, so an antenna designed for VHF television or FM radios should work. NOAA recommends receivers with a 0.5 to 1.0 microvolt sensitivity for 20 decibels (dB) quieting, a selectivity of 40 to 70 dB down at +/- 25 kilohertz (kHz), tunable or switchable to all frequencies.
Local frequenciesPlease note, the flier on NOAA weather radios handed out at the Kenwood meeting on Aug. 21 listed the incorrect frequency for the Sonoma Mountain transmitter. If you took one home from that meeting, please update your brochure with the correct information.
To receive an alert broadcast through the Sonoma Mountain station, your radio must be tuned to 162.475 MHz (call sign WZ2504), not 162.400 MHz, which is the station on Mount Pise near San Francisco (call sign KHB49). According to NOAA coverage maps, KHB49 reaches some parts of Sonoma County, but during the Sept. 5 alert test, the county will broadcast the alert only on WZ2504, so make sure you’ve got it tuned to 162.475.
Where to buyRadios can be purchased at electronics stores or online. Tim Romero, alert and warning program manager for Sonoma County, recommends purchasing a Midland brand radio. The Midland WR120B/WR120EZ can be found on Amazon.com for $29.99 and contains many of the recommended features listed above. It does not, however, include a hand crank as an alternative power source. You’d have to jump up to the Midland ER210 for that, at $49.99. The Midland WR400 ($69.99) has all this, plus it automatically scans through all seven available weather band channels and sounds the alarm when there is an alert on any of them.
Learning from experienceOne Kenwood Press reporter ordered a FOSPower NOAA radio from Amazon.com before attending the Kenwood meeting and found that all $30 NOAA radios are NOT created equal. Her $30 NOAA radio leaves much to be desired, namely digital tuning, so she can see with certainty that the radio is tuned to 162.475 MHz. Also, she’d like a way to plug it into the wall. The radio’s AAA batteries, a solar panel, and a crank lever provide full battery power, but without an AC cord, it’s challenging to keep the radio on all the time. Officials recommend keeping a NOAA radio in your bedroom or wherever you will hear it, powered on at all times.
The testIf you get a radio for the Sept. 5 test, remember to test it where you will be using it (i.e. in your bedroom if you will be storing it next to your bed, not out front on your lawn), as the reception quality of the radios can vary depending on whether you’re indoors or outdoors.