Sirens yet to make themselves heard

When the clock strikes noon on Tuesdays in The City, the air-raid sirens fire up but are then followed by a garbled message that sounds not unlike Charlie Brown’s mother.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Rex Barad, a city employee, when asked if he heard the voice while walking in Civic Center Plaza on a Tuesday at noon. “Is there a recording?”

With disasters consistently predicted for the Bay Area, problems persist with the emergency public-address system, Mayor Gavin Newsom said, despite its installation three years ago. The address system, which is supposed to warn and give directions to residents during a disaster or terrorist attack, is inaudible.

Currently, The City has 77 sirens and 45 more to be deployed, according to the Department of Emergency, but the system still has some hurdles, or hills, to overcome.

“The sound system works quite effectively. It’s just the voice over that continues to be an issue in certain locations,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said. “No other city has an alarm system that has a voice-over for every single square mile, and so it’s getting tweaked so it works over a large tall building or over a particular hill,” he said.

In 2005, The City, working with Acoustic Technology Inc. installed 65 sirens around San Francisco to communicate with residents and workers during disastrous events.

The installation cost $2.1 million and was funded by a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, according to the Department of Emergency Management.

The city attorney threatened to sue the Massachusetts-based company in 2005 after coverage by the emergency sirens failed to live up to the negotiated contract, but Acoustic Technology replaced defective parts and added equipment to avoidany litigation, said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney.

Since the initial rollout of the system, sirens have been placed along the Great Highway to warn of tsunami, on the University of San Francisco campus to use if there is a school shooting and at 17th and Castro streets, formerly ground zero of Halloween revelry.

Acoustic experts from UC Berkeley, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, using “Soundplan” software, began testing the system in July 2007 to determine where the 45 new sirens should be located for the best voice recognition.

Locations such as Russian Hill and the downtown area currently have worse coverage than other areas in The City, said Tom Rivard, a senior environmental health specialist with DPH who works on the testing.

dsmith@examiner.com

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