Warning systems considered for coast

A tsunami similar to the six-foot surge that hit Crescent City on Wednesday could happen on the San Francisco and San Mateo County coast, giving all the more reason to move ahead quickly with the installation of a new warning system, officials say.

Harbors in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and other areas could be hit hard, and swimmers at Ocean Beach — already known for its rip tides — could be pulled out to sea if a tsunami strikes the Bay Area, experts said Thursday. To prevent such a disaster, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors is set on Tuesday to approve the purchase of a $350,000 siren, loudspeaker and telephone warning system.

The system is nearly identical to one installed in San Francisco in 2005, said Laura Adleman, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. The City’s 65 sirens cost about $2 million and replaced a dilapidated air raid system from the 1940s, but they don’t include loudspeakers.

“The tsunami a year ago in Indonesia was kind of a wake up call, so we began to talk about the contingencies and the need to quickly notify people,” San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon said. New tsunami inundation maps issued by the federal government shortly afterward only reinforced the need for better preparation, he said.

“I would think it has the potential to save lives,” said Pacifica Mayor Sue Digre, whose coastal city could be swamped by a tsunami.

The system includes six siren loudspeakers that can be programmed to give directions in multiple languages, San Mateo County Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security Lt. John Quinlan said. Two sirens will be placed near Pacifica, two by El Granada and two at the north end of Half Moon Bay, Quinlan said. A major feature of the system is it’s “reverse 911” capability, officials said. Using a computer mapping system, emergency personnel can initiate house calls to warn residents to flee to higher ground, Quinlan said.

“Our immediate concern was tsunamis on the coast,” Quinlan said. “We wanted the voice option so that someone can give directions because for visitors, when they hear the siren, they don’t know whether to dive under a desk or what.”

The $350,000 system was purchased with Department of Homeland Security funds and could be used during a terrorist attack, but its primary use will be for natural disasters, officials said. The county expects to have the telephone system running by the end of the month, but the sirens will require building permits from cities and could take longer to install.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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