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Redwood Valley anticipates more notification sirens

Two men stand at the base of a telephone pole with a large siren on top.

After the 2017 firestorm, community members said they wanted a siren that could notify them in the event of an emergency. Testing is underway to add more sirens to the one that was installed at the firehouse in 2021.

Redwood Valley residents gathered in the firehouse on Saturday morning for a demonstration of a warning siren and updates on plans to increase the number of sirens to notify people in remote areas of a pending emergency. One siren, installed at the station in August 2021, has a range of about one square mile.

Kerry Robinson is the chief of the Redwood Valley Calpella Fire District, which has 23 volunteers and four paid staff. He reflected on Saturday morning’s test and how expanding the notification system has been a long-standing desire of the community.

“My impression was, it was very, very loud,” he reported. “I walked outside and just went, oh, my. And then they stopped the siren, and you could just hear it echoing through the valley…This is one of the things I’m very very concerned about, being the fire chief here in Redwood Valley. The community is my number one priority, so I want to make sure the community is well taken care of. The community has spoken and spoken several times, asking when the project would be completed. And then the county stepped up and said, hey, we can help out with a grant. So I’m really looking forward to getting this project going. I was there in the 2017 fires. It was horrible.”

The 2017 firestorm was on Supervisor Glenn McGourty’s mind, too. “I’m really excited about this, because after the 2017 disaster here in Redwood Valley, one of the things everyone noted was, it would have been really great to have had some kind of warning,” he recalled. “And then we had failures of our cell system and everything else, so it really was tragic, the way that we couldn’t get the word out. So this is part of a long term investment process that the county has gone through, first with PG&E funds, and then we supported Measure P, which passed.” Measure P was a ten-year quarter-cent general sales tax measure that voters approved in November. The Board of Supervisors referred it to the ballot. It’s estimated to raise $4 million a year for essential services like ambulances and firefighters. Because it is a general tax, it is not a binding measure.

Chief Robinson said there are several different ways to activate the sirens, either with cell phones or a landline or even manually, in the event of another collapse of key infrastructure. He said plans for exactly what it will cost to expand the system, precisely how many more sirens will be added, and where they will go, are still in the early phase. The current estimate for how many more sirens will be needed is four. So far, the project has cost $60,000, mainly from the PG&E disaster settlement.

Charles Clugston is the president of CTC Mass Notification Systems, the distributor of the siren system. He shared some technical details. “We have four batteries in there, and it’s solar powered,” he explained. “We’re at 560 megahertz. So it’s like a foghorn, so it travels really far. Like when someone drives up behind you, like a young kid, and they have a lot of bass in the car, you feel it. It’s like that.” He added that even if the telephone pole holding up the siren were to snap, the siren would continue to sound. The system also includes a number of tests for deficits of its various components. The weekend’s test relied largely on citizen feedback from residents who called in to report how well they heard it, from which parts of the valley.

Clugston said there will be more testing of the siren’s sound quality, combining the data from previous years and this weekend, to determine where the next sirens will be positioned.

Brad Cox represents Whelan Engineering, which designs and implements the systems. He spoke about the local challenges of finding the right location for more sirens. In Northern California, with its ridges and valleys, “it is a task to get covered at times,” he noted. His company’s units have a range of 5,800-6,100 feet, but the size of the unit is not always as much of a concern as the terrain, which dictates how far the sound can travel. For that reason, the system is designed around the targeted area. If there are ridges all the way around a site, he said, “There’s no sense in putting the large one in, because (the sound) is not going over the ridge. It’s going to go up and that’s where it will stop. So some of the areas may have the smaller one, because it doesn’t need the large one. It doesn’t benefit them anymore. So that’s part of our planning, is to find out where we need them, what size we need, and then develop a plan and deliver it back to the county.” There will be further analysis and public hearings before the project proceeds. The units will be “on the ground” within about three and a half months of placing an order, and then the installation and bureaucratic hurdles will begin.

Clugston hopes to start installation within a year. Chief Robinson took an opportunity to talk up his department. “We’ll get through this project here,” he predicted; “and we’ve got some additional fire engines that are showing up. We have a lot of new volunteers here at the fire station, so we’re constantly working to make this fire department the best it can be for our community,” he declared.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.