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  Another Community Warning System Malfunction
April 16, 2011

You hear an emergency warning siren. What do you do?

  • Shelter in place?
  • Call Emergency 9-1-1 to find out what is going on?
  • Call Dispatch 510/233-1214 to find out what is going on?
  • Listen to radio KCBS FM (7.40)?
  • Channel surf the TV to see if there is any news?


The answer is – no one really knows.

On Tuesday, April 12, shortly after 7:00 AM, a siren that is part of the Community Warning System in Richmond was activated and continued to sound for approximately 30 minutes. I received a phone call and several emails from people in Marina Bay and the North and East wondering what was going on.

Some people who were heading for work decided to hunker down until they found out what was happening. If you followed the procedures listed on the City of Richmond website for the Community Warning System, you would have immediately Sheltered in Place:

The following shelter-in-place procedures are recommended as the best first response after the Safety Sirens are sounded.


  • Go inside your home or nearest building.
  • Bring pets in, if possible.
  • Officials at the Fire Department, the Health Department, and the Office of Emergency Services agree that in the case of chemical accident, people who shelter indoors are much safer than those people who remain outside and are exposed to the chemicals.


  • Close doors and windows.
  • Use window and door locks to create a better seal.
  • Turn off ventilation systems such as heating, air conditioners, and fans.
  • Make sure your vents and fireplace flue are closed.


  • Turn on your radio and television for information and further instruction.
  • The community warning system is designed to provide Contra Costa County specific information directly to the media. Public access television will have ongoing status reports and information.
  • Avoid using the telephone unless you have a life-threatening emergency. 

The County’s Community Warning System web site describes “The First Three Things to Do in Any Emergency:”

Emergencies can arise without any warning. Frequently, though, officials can provide alerts using sirens, telephones or other means. What you should do depends on where you are and what's happening nearby. Whatever the danger, though, and however you hear about it, your first steps should be:

  • Make sure you're in a safe place, or get to one;
  • Get more information from radio, TV, websites or other sources; and then,
  • Take specific protective actions as recommended.
  • Shelter In Place – If your local officials advise you to "shelter in place," that means you should go inside your home or office and protect yourself there. Close and lock all windows and exterior doors. Turn off all fans, heating and air conditioning systems. Close the fireplace damper. Get your disaster supplies kit, and make sure the radio is working. Go to an interior room without windows that's above ground level. In the case of a chemical threat, an above-ground location is preferable because some chemicals are heavier than air, and may seep into basements even if the windows are closed. Using duct tape, seal all cracks around the door and any vents into the room. Keep listening to your radio or television until you are told all is safe or you are told to evacuate.
  • Evacuate – If authorities ask you to leave your home, they have a good reason to make this request, and you should take their advice immediately. Listen to your radio or television and follow the instructions of local emergency officials. Keep these simple tips in mind:
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and sturdy shoes so you can be protected as much as possible.
  • Take your disaster supplies kit.
  • Take your pets with you. Bring food, water and leashes or carriers for them.
  • Lock your home.
  • Use travel routes specified by local authorities—don't use shortcuts because certain areas may be impassable or dangerous.
  • Stay away from downed power lines.
  •   Prepare to Evacuate – If time permits, local authorities may ask you to get ready for a possible evacuation, but not to go yet. This is your opportunity to take steps that will help make an evacuation go more smoothly if it does become necessary:
  • If you haven't already done so, put together an evacuation supplies kit in an easy-to-carry container such as a duffel bag or small plastic trash can.
  • Include "special needs" items for any member of your household (infant formula or items for people with disabilities or older people), first aid supplies (including prescription medications), and pet food.
  • Pack a change of clothing for each household member, a sleeping bag or bedroll for each, a battery powered radio or television and extra batteries, food, bottled water and tools.
  • If possible include some cash and copies of important family documents (birth certificates, passports and licenses) in your kit.

The County advisory fails, however, to describe what a “safe place” is, and if you don’t know “what’s happening nearby,” it’s impossible to “Take specific protective actions as recommended.” The weak link has always been access to timely and accurate information.

Some of the emails I received the morning of April 12 included:

  • On KCBS, Chevron Richmond denied that it was their sirens.    Okay, fine. So did KCBS check with General Chemical to see if something was going on?  There was NOTHING on any of the city or emergency services websites. The city could stand to update its website--it lists TCI as a television partner, and TCI hasn't been a cable company for years. I still don't want to leave my house for work until I know whether it was a malfunction. A lot of good a siren does if you can't get any information from any source about WHY it's going off.
  • 7:13 AM - Channel 4 reports CHP states the alarm was accidently set off. But, I agree, SIP alarm needs info connected---website seems to indicate info can be accessed via a whether radio: http://www.cococaer.org/prepare_radios.html


  • 7:32 AM:  Channel 4 just reported Chevron and General Chemical have both stated the alarm is not for them and that Richmond Fire is trying to figure out what is happening. I called and left a message at the Richmond's Office of Emergency Services, but they are not in until 8:30. Today's sounding of the emergency-warning system alarm for nearly 30 minutes threw our household into a panic, but getting information about what was going on was very difficult. It took most of an hour before I heard (read) from a neighbor on my neighborhood listserv that there was no emergency. My relief was tainted with a sense of anger.
    • Why was there no response but a recording on the police non-emergency phone line when I called in at about 7:10 a.m. and hit 0 to get to a person? Is that line not staffed outside of regular business hours? 911 gave me an "all circuits busy" message when I tried that immediately afterward, so I assumed things were really bad.


    • How many people were sheltering in place and afraid to go to work or school this morning?

How many of us sat around and tried to follow city website instructions that told us not to tie up phone lines <http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.aspx?nid=331 ; see "Shelter-in-Place Procedures">, not to be outside to talk to neighbors, but instead to tune in to TV and radio stations that were broadcasting no information about the supposed emergency?

    • Where is the city website that provides immediate alerts about this kind of emergency or non-emergency?


    • How many people just went to work and school as usual? This might have proved very dangerous had there been an emergency.
    • Why did the city's emergency phone system not call all Richmond residents to tell us (1) there was a problem and (2) that it had been a false alarm?


I note that emergency calls only go to a one-mile radius of the emergency site; this is no longer adequate in a time when so many people work and go to school at greater distances from home. Something is wrong with this system beyond just a malfunctioning siren, and I hope that you will take action to figure out what's wrong and put in better measures. Then maybe we'll be ready, rather than panicked, when a real emergency comes along.

  • It was discouraging to find the RPD non-emergency number down this morning, and Richmond Emergency Services closed, even as a siren was screaming an alarm.  It turned out to be a false alarm, which is a relief.  But when an alarm is sounding, it would be appropriate if there was an immediate corresponding notification that either: a) all is well or b) everyone should seek shelter.  I mean why even sound an alarm without corresponding info!  Eventually there were local media announcements but it seemed as though they were very late to arrive. Disturbing state of affairs this morning in Richmond.


  • I heard it too, turned on KALW nothing, tuned into KPFA nothing so I called 233-1214 number then I punched in several selections and was confronted by the message that "that number is currently unavailable" I got that message several times, so- what the hell and called 911 which I detest doing for stuff like this. they told me it's malfunctioning!
  • At 7:49 AM. Bay City News posted the following: Richmond: Malfunction causes emergency warning siren to sound. RICHMOND -- Richmond residents who heard an emergency warning siren Tuesday morning don't need to be alarmed; it appears the siren malfunctioned, a Contra Costa Health Services spokesman said. The siren began sounding about 7:10 a.m. in the marina area, said Randy Sawyer, chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer for Contra Costa Health Services. There is no emergency, and a crew has been sent to find out what went wrong with the siren and deactivate it, he said. "It's not responding remotely, so we had to send someone there," Sawyer said. http://www.contracostatimes.com/top-stories/ci_17825812?nclick_check=1


  • 8:07 AM from the Richmond Police Department Facebook Page: by The Richmond Police Department on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 8:07am. "But I can't get through to the Police Department!"

Residents trying to call into Richmond's Dispatch Center yesterday when the community emergency sirens were malfunctioning may have experienced difficulty getting through on our 911 and non-emergency lines.  As in most cities, Richmond's dispatch center has a limited number of incoming emergency and non-emergency phone lines.  In addition, we only have so many dispatchers available to answer calls at any given time.  When hundreds, or even thousands, of people try to call in at the same time, the system is likely to be overwhelmed and you should plan on the likelihood of not being able to get through.  This is not a unique situation to Richmond and it is a reality you should plan for in advance. We do recommend that in a community emergency, such as an earthquake or a haz-mat situation, you try to limit calls to Dispatch to LIFE THREATENING emergencies. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.


The following is from the City Manager’s Weekly Report for the Week Ending April 15, 2011:

Community Warning System Malfunction on April 12, 2011

On Tuesday April 12th, shortly after 7:00 AM, the County-operated community warning siren in the Marina Bay Neighborhood malfunctioned, setting off an alert for approximately 20-25 minutes.  Unfortunately, the siren vendor, Alerting Solutions, was unable to remotely turn off the warning signal.  The Richmond Fire Company from Station 67 was able to manually turn off the siren at approximately 7:30 AM.

One of the significant concerns raised by this false alarm incident, in addition to the needless, prolonged noise, was that neither the public at large nor City representatives (and specifically the emergency service dispatchers) were notified of the status in a timely manner.  

Following this incident, the Fire Department and the Office of Emergency Services have taken the following steps to rectify any future problems:

  • Staff contacted the Community Warning System Division of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office to be certain that they follow the proper protocols and notification procedures whenever a siren sounds in the City of Richmond.


  • Richmond Emergency Services Manager Kathy Gerk requested that this incident be placed on the CAER (Community Awareness and Emergency Response) Emergency Notification Committee meeting agenda for follow-up on April 26, 2011.  This committee includes the refinery, industry, and government representatives.
  • The Richmond Police/Fire communications staff and the Office of Emergency Services Manager will meet on April 20, 2011 to discuss the proper notification protocol to follow when sirens sound in the City of Richmond.


  • Staff will continue to work with the Sheriff’s Office to ensure proper notification to the public via the Telephone Emergency Notification System (TENS) on any siren activation, malfunction or not.

According to Byron Baptiste, Communications Manager, Richmond Police Department:
Our communications center staff became aware of the siren at approximately 0706 hours today when we began receiving calls from the public. Because this was a siren malfunction, there was no alert registered on the warning system monitor in our communications center.
The RPD non-emergency line was not out of service during this time frame. However, our center was inundated with 228 telephone calls during this hour. As a comparison, typical call volume during this same time period is 31 telephone calls. Staff was able to respond to 210 of these calls. Others disconnected before a dispatcher became available. While every call is important, dispatchers are tasked to give priority to incoming 911 calls.  
Almost immediately after becoming aware of the siren, some dispatchers began calling local facilities including Chevron and General Chemical to check for a possible source. Concurrently, the shift supervisor checked with the Contra Costa Sherriff’s Department to confirm that our warning system monitor was not malfunctioning.
Once these possibilities were eliminated, a service call was made to Alerting Solutions.  At approximately 0729 hours, Alerting Solutions called back and informed our staff of the specific siren malfunction. They also provided information on how to temporarily disable the siren.
This incident has raised some protocol questions regarding personnel and media notifications. I will be meeting with Emergency Services Manager Kathryn Gerk next week to discuss these

Clearly, confusion reigns. The fact is that the Contra Costa Community Warning System has never functioned successfully and has a history since its inception of human and/or mechanical failures that make it a well-intentioned but unsuccessful reality.

For examples of past failures, see:

Despite years of flubs, some spectacular, no one has been able to figure out how to simply let people know what is going on when a siren sounds. The county’s website advises:

Getting More Information During Emergencies
Radio and television broadcasts are usually the best source of ongoing information about emergencies. Be aware, though, that different stations and channels serve different areas. You may need to tune around a bit to find information for your particular area. In the San Francisco Bay Area radio station KCBS (740 AM) may be a good place to start.
If you have Internet access, websites can be a valuable source of detailed information. Sometimes special websites are set up to provide emergency information to a particular area; these sites will be advertised on radio or TV. A few permanent websites that may be helpful include: 

The City of Richmond website advises the following potential sources of information:

Local Radio & Television Network Affiliates

The CWS has coordinated with local radio and television stations to broadcast emergency information in the event of a disaster. Currently, the CWS is linked to five TV and 13 radio stations. These are the station to listen to when your hear a safety siren alert:


  • KCRT Television (TCI Cable) - Channel 25, 17 or 57 depending on area (Note that this is all erroneous information)
  • Channel 4 (NBC)
  • Channel 5 (CBS)
  • Channel 9 (PBS)
  • Contra Costa Television (CCTV) - Channel 10, 18, 19 or 27 depending on area

Radio Stations

  • KCBS AM 740
  • KATD AM 990
  • KFRC AM 610
  • KEAR FM 106.9
  • KOIT FM 96.5
  • KFRC FM 99.7
  • KQED FM 88.5
  • KSTN FM 107.3
  • KROW FM 104.1
  • KYCY FM 93.3
  • KZWC
  • Shadow News Services
  • Metro News Service 

According to Contra Costa County’s website, the Community Warning System is “Contra Costa County's advanced public alerting network”

The Community Warning System (CWS) is a comprehensive system for alerting people in Contra Costa County to any imminent hazard to life or health. Built by a community coalition, funded by industry through the county's Health Services Department and operated by the Office of the Sheriff, the Contra Costa CWS is a thriving public-private partnership for public safety and homeland security. The CWS uses a variety of systems to reach the greatest number of people as quickly and reliably as possible, including:

  • Sirens in special safety areas
  • Telephone notification (wired and cellular)
  • Broadcast radio and TV
  • Cable television
  • NOAA Weather Radio

One of the problems is that the Community Warning System has always had an identity crisis. It is entirely unclear who is in charge of the system, and in fact, no one may be in charge. The County’s website states: “The Community Warning System (CWS) is a comprehensive system for alerting people in Contra Costa County to any imminent hazard to life or health. Built by a community coalition, funded by industry through the County's Health Services Department and operated by the Office of the Sheriff, the Contra Costa CWS is a thriving public-private partnership for public safety and homeland security.” This identifies at least four entities:

Built by a community coalition;

Funded by industry, through;

The Health Services Department;

Operated by the Office of the Sheriff

The “community coalition” component is the “Contra Costa County Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) Group, Inc. is a non-profit public benefit corporation of public emergency response agencies, local government officials and facilities and businesses that use, store, handle, produce or transport hazardous materials.” It was instituted in the early 1990s as an attempt to mitigate potential dangers from industrial explosions and releases by making people feel they had some level of protection. The CAER board is dominated by representatives of industry.

How to fix it? I would start by eliminating the multiple layers of overlapping responsibility. Make one single agency totally responsible for deploying the system, including activating sirens and providing information. Make industry continue to fund it, but eliminate the voluntary element. Find some way to detect accidental activation of sirens and report immediately to the community via the phone system as well as alerting all media. You can now register your cell phone for alerts. Click here to register.

The most troubling aspect is that we even need this. Although theoretically it could be used to warn of a tsunami or tornado, it has always been used to warn of an industrial hazard. Industry wants us to believe they are doing the community a big favor. The problem is that industry is unwilling to pay for all the aggravation related to sheltering in place or even dealing with system malfunctions. For a major industrial release, as has happened in the past, the cost to the community for hours of lost work time, school time and other inconveniences is easily in the tens of thousands of dollars. For a false alarm that is resolved quickly, it is less, but industry should still be held accountable.

How do you feel about this?