Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin plans to introduce legislation next month seeking $5 million to overhaul the siren system, double the cost of the original estimate because of project delays.
"It’s not a want to have, it’s a need to have," he said Monday. "The longer you delay that the more expensive it becomes so you’ve really got to bite the bullet even if it means cutting other things because it is an investment that pays off."
The system was taken offline in 2019 amid security concerns and a hacking risk. With the COVID pandemic that followed, Peskin admits fixing the 119 sirens hasn’t risen to the top of the priority list.
The renewed focus comes following criticism in Hawaii for not using their emergency sirens to warn people about the impending wildfires in Maui that have now killed 114 and destroyed hundred more homes and wiped out the town of Lahaina.
"I think everybody saw this as a teachable moment," Peskin said. "It’s a profoundly important tool to have an emergency siren system."
KTVU found several other Bay Area cities with worn out or old siren warning systems.
San Leandro’s sirens have been offline for at least a year, a spokesperson said Monday. All eight are being evaluated alongside other warning tools like opt-in emergency text alerts and government wireless warning where officials can message any cell phones in each area.
While San Leandro used to test its sirens monthly, once it switched to the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority, they went silent. Requests for comment by the EBRCSA went unanswered.
The city of Oakland installed dozens of sirens in the 1990s following the firestorm in the East Bay hills and still does routine testing, a fire official said.
But some neighbors said the sirens never sound.
"I have never heard it before," said Montclair resident Natalie Jeng. "Maybe just a lot of the safety systems here are just for show and not maintained."
Sources tell KTVU the city doesn’t know which of the sirens work and which don’t, unless a neighborhood complaint is received.
Documents show funding for warning system upgrades were proposed and approved by Oakland leaders in 2014. City spokespeople did not immediately provide additional information about current system maintenance.
And in Berkeley, the city has never had outdoor warning sirens but is now building a new system from scratch that is expected to be complete by the end of the year, a spokesperson said.
"This is very concerning," said Art Botterell, retired FEMA public warning specialist. "Unfortunately, it’s not surprising."
He said it often takes a disaster to recognize the need for working or enhanced warning systems. But it’s also necessary to have critical procedures, around the clock personnel, and ongoing maintenance funding in hopes of better protecting people.
"Simply writing a check and buying a big, fancy system does not guarantee public warning success," said Botterell. "It takes a lot of maintenance to keep these siren systems working. They’re out in the weather, they’re usually out in locations where they’re not usually monitored."
Peskin said he will propose the $5 million to $6 million in funding needed at the September meeting of the board of supervisors. He said Mayor London Breed is on board and if approved the sirens could be operational as soon as next year.
"It’s something that government should do," he said. You can see right now in Maui there’s all sorts of second guessing about what they should have, could have, didn’t do and I don’t want to be in that situation in San Francisco."
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that the City of Berkeley did not have sirens in disrepair, rather, the city is currently installing its first outdoor warning system.