Warning Sirens

Siren systems have not been widely used for wildfire warnings in the past, but after the deadly fires of the past few years, Malibu joins a number of other California communities in taking a serious look at siren systems to warn residents about fast-moving wildfires. Some in Malibu said the only warning they got to evacuate was seeing the fire itself—which was especially true in areas that lost power or cell service.

With an eye to better preparing itself for future emergencies, the City of Malibu last week put out an official “Request for Proposals” (RFP) for an outdoor warning siren system planning study. These types of outdoor alert systems usually consist of a series of loud speakers positioned on poles and buildings that will broadcast a tone or pattern of sound that can be heard up to a mile away during emergencies. Some sirens can even broadcast announcements.

The city is asking consultants/consulting firms to identify the optimum placement of multiple sirens along the 21-mile length of the city that could be heard everywhere in an emergency and provide an overall detailed and comprehensive plan for an outdoor siren warning system.

“The sirens will have a fire focus, but could be used for other situations as well, such as a tsunami,” Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas wrote to The Malibu Times in an email.

The City’s RFP points out that Malibu “has a long history of damaging wildfire and winter storms” where “even small spot fires can quickly escalate.” They wrote that, “Following the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned 488 residential structures ... and resulted in a city-wide evacuation, the need for further redundancy in the city’s communications and alerting system was identified as a community priority.” 

Most of the city’s emergency alert communication systems depend on electricity, including web-based alerts, reverse-911-style alerts and wireless emergency alerts. But, because of frequent power outages during windy conditions, combined with Southern California Edison’s Public Safety Power Shut-off (PSPS) program, Malibu residents without power wouldn’t be able to receive emergency communications from the city, including evacuation orders by phone, internet or radio.

The city wants the siren system with battery-backup so it can provide emergency alerts during power outages or in instances where cell towers are damaged— with the ultimate goal of saving lives. 

One of the challenges in designing a siren warning system for all of Malibu will be the steep terrain and deep canyons, which will require thorough sound studies. The city wants consultants to provide both primary and secondary site options for each siren, a sound coverage area for each proposed siren site, and identification of any sites where sirens would not be effective. 

The study must also include a thorough consideration of factors like air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and building heights.

As a starting point, the city has identified six of its own properties as potential sites for siren installation: Trancas Park, Heathercliff Road and Pacific Coast Highway (vacant lot), Bluffs Park, 23575 Civic Center Way (vacant lot), Las Flores Park and Malibu City Hall. The consultant would be asked to identify all other sites for sirens that aren’t on city property and to present the results of the study, including project costs, to the community and city council.

After the deadly wildfires of northern California in October 2017, where the Tubbs and Atlas Fires killed a total of 28 people in Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties, a number of wine country and Bay Area  communities are now seriously considering a siren system, including Calistoga, Berkeley, Sonoma and Mill Valley.  Most of the communities more recently affected by the Woolsey, Thomas and Camp Fires have not gotten that far yet.

Dueñas said the only nearby community she knows of that has a siren warning system is Laguna Beach, which has three tsunami warning sirens, but theirs is on a smaller scale than what is being proposed for Malibu. Laguna Beach’s siren system also is equipped to broadcast verbal commands, according to information on Laguna Beach’s city website.

All proposals for Malibu’s siren system would be due in to Susan Dueñas, public safety manager, on Sept. 13. More information is available at malibucity.org.

Editor’s note: The small town of Harper Woods, Mich., where this editor grew up, has a citywide tornado warning siren system. So far as I know, no one has been swept away in a tornado there, since we all trained at a young age to head into the basement when the sirens come on (causing all the neighborhood dogs to howl in unison). According to longtime Harper Woods Council Member Vivian Sawicki (my mom), ours were repurposed from 1950s air raid sirens.

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