Empty noise from $2.1M sirens

The City’s $2.1 million emergency siren network features a public-address system that is supposed to tell the public what is wrong and how to respond. Unfortunately, when the 77 sirens are tested each Tuesday at noon, the system’s speakers follow up with an announcement that sounds like, “Tngrr mzzbrrf *&$ gkrnmp%# sksxmorgw *#^@$” etc., etc.

The message that San Franciscans should be hearing on any peaceful Tuesday is, “This is a test. This is a test of the outdoor public warning system. This is only a test.” True, it might be no great loss to public safety that a routine citywide street announcement is incomprehensible. But what about thedanger when a real emergencyoccurs?

What if those emergency warning speakers along the Great Highway merely transmit garbled noise instead of urging the beachfront residents to immediately evacuate before an incoming tsunami tidal wave demolishes the shore? What if there is no way to warn students at the University of San Francisco campus to barricade their classrooms because a school shooter is on a rampage?

And the worst scenario — when The City is rocked by the magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake that scientists recently said was a 93 percent certainty to strike Northern California within the next 30 years.

It is ridiculous that our high-density urban center surrounded by active earthquake faults, a city filled with tempting and vulnerable terrorist targets and which is struggling to reduce an increasing level of street violence cannot assemble a grid of emergency warning speakers that people can hear.

This entire $2.1 million siren system is only three years old. It was funded by a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security and installed by Massachusetts-based Acoustic Technology Inc. Even in 2005, when the first 65 speakers came online, the city attorney threatened to sue Acoustic Technology because its sound coverage failed to live up to the negotiated contract.

The company sidestepped litigation by replacing defective parts and adding more equipment. It is now assigned to install another 45 speakers to fill in coverage of underserved areas. Meanwhile, The City has spent $55,000 for acoustic experts using Soundplan software to test the system’s voice amplification clarity.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said no other city is attempting to create an alarm system with audible voice messaging for every square mile. So fine-tuning for problem locations where hills or tall buildings block sound is only to be expected.

But a city as vulnerable as San Francisco simply cannot delay getting the emergency warning system it paid millions for — and with announcement speakers that can be understood.

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