A Wake Up Call

Most of us are familiar with what the City and County of San Francisco’s Outdoor Public Warning System Sirens sound like thanks to the Tuesday noon test when every siren booms for several seconds followed by “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.”  But hearing that siren at any time other than Tuesday at noon means something is awry.

So, being jarred from sleep by an Outdoor Public Warning siren is scary—and then to find out there was no emergency is nothing short of annoying. Unfortunately, this happened in a handful of San Francisco neighborhoods late last Saturday night and early Sunday morning.  And for this disturbance, we wholeheartedly apologize.

As we engage in extensive diagnostic testing to figure out what caused the siren activation, we know many of you have questions about the sirens.  So, in the spirit of using this wake up call as a learning opportunity, we’d like to offer the following Frequently Asked Questions regarding what happened last weekend, and about the sirens in general.

Outdoor Public Warning System


San Francisco Outdoor Public Warning System Sirens Frequently Asked Questions: 

Q: What is the Outdoor Public Warning System for?

A: The City’s Outdoor Public Warning System is designed to alert residents and visitors of San Francisco about possible danger. Specific emergency announcements can be broadcast over any one (or more) of the 112 sirens which are located on poles and on top of buildings throughout all neighborhoods in San Francisco, Treasure Island, and Yerba Buena.

Q: Why do the sirens go off every Tuesday?

A: Tuesdays at noon is the set date to test the sirens and it is during this weekly test that the siren emits a single 15 second alert tone, similar to an emergency vehicle siren. In the event of a disaster, the 15 second alert tone will sound repeatedly for 5 minutes

Q: What do I do when I hear the sirens sound Tuesday at noon?

A: Take a moment to think about what you would do if confronted with an actual emergency and remind yourself to turn to traditional and/or social media for more information. Check out www.sf72.org to learn how to be prepared for any type of emergency. It’s a good time to register for  www.alertsf.org and follow @SF_Emergency if you haven’t done so already.

Q: What do I do if I hear the sirens sound if it’s not Tuesday at noon?

A: If you hear the siren at a time other than its regular test on Tuesday at noon:

  • Stop what you are doing.
  • Stay calm.
  • Listen for possible voice announcements.
  • Turn on the radio or television, (such as KCBS 740AM, KQED 88.5 FM) for important information provided by the City.
  • Avoid using the telephone. Do not call 9-1-1, unless you have a life-threatening emergency.

On rare occasion, special tests are done on other than Tuesday at noon – we will make every effort to inform the public of the date and time before these tests occur.

Q: Why did the alarm sound last weekend?

A: The cause of the siren activation is still under review.  Extensive diagnostic testing is taking place to determine the exact cause of the sirens accidentally going off.

Q: Was this a planned test?

A: No, planned tests take place Tuesday at noon. The cause of the unscheduled siren activation is still under review.

Q: What if there is an emergency Tuesday at noon and everyone thinks the siren going off is only a test?

A: Should an actual emergency take place Tuesday at noon, the Department of Emergency Management will send messages via traditional media (such as KCBS 740AM, KQED 88.5 FM), social media (@sf_emergency on Twitter, www.facebook.com/sfdem and Nextdoor), and if needed, first responders would canvas the areas impacted by the emergency.

Q: What if I can’t hear or understand what is being announced following the siren going off?

A: If it’s not Tuesday at noon, tune to traditional media such as KCBS 740AM, KQED 88.5 FM and/or social media such as @sf_emergency on Twitter, www.facebook.com/sfdem and Nextdoor.  Also, those registered for www.alertsf.org will receive information about the emergency via email and/or text message from San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Q: What if I can’t hear the siren at all?

A: Registering for www.alertsf.org is the City’s emergency alerting system, so please register so we can send you emergency information to your email and/or text message to your phone.

Q: What else should I do to get information about emergencies?

Register for www.alertsf.org to get an email and/or text message about the emergency and tune to traditional media such as KCBS 740AM, KQED 88.5 FM and/or social media such as @SF_Emergency, www.facebook.com/SFDEM and Nextdoor.

Q: How are the sirens triggered?

A: The sirens are manually triggered by a Department of Technology technician positioned within the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Q: How old is the Outdoor Public Warning System?

A: 50 sirens were originally installed in 1948. System was revamped in 2005 adding more sirens and voice capability. 112 sirens are in service now.

Q:  When was it last used for an emergency?

A: It was last used in 2012 on Treasure Island to inform residents living on Treasure Island of a water main break and a boil water notice.

Q: Aren’t these sirens outdated? Why don’t we just get rid of them?

A: The short answer is that it’s important to have multiple alerting systems in the event one does not work. The silver lining in last weekend’s malfunction, is that while we were spreading the message there was no emergency in San Francisco, we also were given the opportunity to make San Franciscans aware of the numerous alerting systems in place, which in all cases include traditional media (such as KCBS 740AM, KQED 88.5 FM), social media (@sf_emergency on Twitter, www.facebook.com/sfdem and Nextdoor).

Q: Why do I hear it during Sunday Streets?

A: The siren is used in the neighborhood where that Sunday Streets took place to announce streets reopening to vehicle traffic.

Q: How many sirens are there throughout the City?

A: 112

Q: How can I locate the siren closest to my home?

A: Check out where all of the City’s Outdoor Public Warning System Sirens are located in the following maps:

Download the map of Siren locations here (PDF)
Download the list of Siren locations here (PDF)

Q: Is Gavin Newsom the narrator of the “This is a test…” message that follows the Tuesday noon siren test? [Why the Lt. Governor you may wonder?  Because people ask.]

A: No, the narrator is radio personality Dave Morey.

Q: Will the alarms sound in the event of an alien invasion?

A:  Probably, but we’re pretty sure that…and a zombie apocalypse…won’t happen.

For more information about OPWS visit http://sfdem.org/index.aspx?page=55

One of San Francisco's Outdoor Warning System Sirens.  Photo courtesy of  www.urbavorepodcast.wordpress.com


About sfdemkristin

A strong believer that we are more prepared than we think, Kristin advocates it is not a looming disaster that inspires us to prepare, but rather the peace of mind that comes from having taken a few simple steps in advance of an emergency to take care of our loved ones. Kristin can be found on Twitter @kristinlhogan.

Posted on November 10, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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