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Warning sirens are not the best solution

  • Updated

This letter is in response to a recent article printed in the Napa Valley Register titled, “Illumination Technologies Pitches Emergency Sirens to Napa County” (May 23).

The article described a proposal by Illumination Technologies CEO Chris Canning to the Board of Supervisors to place 32-40 60-foot monopoles disguised as trees and equipped with sirens on public land throughout the county to warn residents of a wildfire.

However, the article did not explain that at the same meeting, Napa County Sheriff Robertson made a presentation regarding the imminent roll-out of a high-low audible warning sound to be used by emergency vehicles solely for the purpose of notifying the public of an immediate evacuation in an emergency, which he said should be ready by January.

Even more interesting, Sheriff Robertson explained that they are in the testing phase of being able to put an audible message in multiple languages into a computer, which could be downloaded into the public address system of patrol cars throughout the county in a few minutes, which would provide residents with targeted information, such as the nature of the emergency and actions to take.

He mentioned that this new system could be implemented at a minimal cost to the county of about $300 per patrol car. Sheriff Robertson’s presentation is important because it provides an alternative to Mr. Canning’s proposal-- one that has many benefits and without the risks.

Based on our research, a siren-only system is an outdated one. Modern systems use integrated voice/siren installations, exactly what Sheriff Robertson described. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “Information is of utmost importance to the public during disasters, especially for those under imminent threat. Without information, and more specifically, without the right information, people are often left to fill in the gaps of what is going on and how to protect themselves.”

The NIST states that the most effective warning messages should include the name of the agency delivering the warning, the nature of the emergency, a description of the location and level of risk, and instructions to evacuate or shelter in place.

According to Mr. Canning, the sirens’ purpose would be to direct people to their cellphones for more information. However, we know that in disasters, cellphone towers often go down. Therefore, reliance on a siren-only system would provide residents with a false sense of security and needlessly expose residents’ to life-threatening risks.

In addition, the system Sheriff Robertson described would have little to no environmental impact. On the other hand, the environmental impact of Mr. Canning’s proposal would be significant, both due to the visual blight, created by the monopoles themselves, and from the unknown and potentially large increase in man-made electromagnetic pollution, since Mr. Canning would recoup the cost of the monopoles, plus profit by leasing them to wireless companies.

During Mr. Canning’s presentation, he implied that everyone in the county has at least 2G cellular service, which is enough to receive a call or a text, and, therefore, enough to get the county’s emergency Nixle alerts.

In terms of access to internet services, two former telecom industry insiders discovered that the telecoms owe states billions of dollars to install fiber optic to all premises and won a court case that will allow states to collect the money owed (Irregulators v. FCC). The County of Napa can work with the state to access that money to provide free, safe high-speed internet to homes and businesses in need.

Finally, there are risks involved with a local government entering into such an agreement with a private entity-- risks that local taxpayers would bear. What if Illumination Technologies failed to maintain the monopoles and upgrade them as new and better technologies became available? What if the corporation went bankrupt or out of business? Would the county lose its ability to regulate what are destined to become cell towers to protect the environment and public health, as well as taxpayers from liability? What if there were complaints about them? Who would be responsible-- Illumination Technologies or the county? What would happen to the value of the property near them?

While we advise against it, if the Board of Supervisors still wants to consider a proposal for an emergency warning system by a private corporation, versus the public system described by Sheriff Robertson, we ask the same thing that Angwin resident Kellie Anderson asked during public comment-- that the process be competitive and transparent with an opportunity for the public to weigh in.

Valerie Wolf and Suzanne Bauman, Coordinators

Napa Neighborhood Association for Safe Technology

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