Closer to home, in February 2017, many residents who lived near San Jose's Coyote Creek said they received no warnings to evacuate as the creek spilled over its banks, displacing thousands.
On April 18, the town and the fire district tested a system they think might solve some emergency communication problems. The system, made by LRAD Corp., is a high-tech version of a siren known as a long-range acoustical device. LRAD devices were recently purchased in San Jose. They use prerecorded tones and voice messages to get attention and communicate over distance and also can be used for crowd control or traffic direction.
Gathering in west Atherton near Cal Water's reservoir, where Atherton installed a more traditional warning siren in 2009, officials tested two LRAD products — a large unit with multiple speakers atop a trailered telescoping broadcasting tower, and a small portable unit that can be mounted on a police car or fire truck, or put in a backpack.
As observers listened, LRAD representative Michael Shanks walked away while broadcasting from the small unit. Even at 75 yards, with the sound level at less than maximum, the broadcast message was clear and easy to understand.
Then Atherton Police Chief Steve McCulley radioed a dispatcher to activate the existing siren. The ear-splitting 110-decibel sound left several of those in attendance covering their ears, while fire board President Chuck Bernstein, who had apparently known what was going to happen, donned protective headphones.
The existing system, designed to warn residents of the Walsh Road area between Highway 280 and Alameda de las Pulgas of a wildfire or an imminent breach in the Cal Water dam, is tested twice a year, in January and June. It can broadcast two different tones to warn of flood or fire that residents must learn to recognize.
Ernest Companion, LRAD's director of business development, said the LRAD systems, in comparison, can have any message custom loaded in the units as MP3 audio files. Both units can also be programmed from a laptop or a microphone, and the sound can penetrate cars and buildings, he said. They broadcast a beam of sound, much like a flashlight beam, he said, and can be sent tightly focused or out over 360 degrees.
When the trailer-mounted large unit was tested, police officers stationed nearly a mile away on Tallwood Court said they could clearly hear the voice messages.
After the test, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he plans to ask the fire board to budget buying an LRAD trailer and portable unit for testing during the 2018-19 fiscal year. "I think we just saw what better looks like," Schapelhouman said.
The LRAD trailer and broadcast unit, which operates on a battery that can go for 72 hours before needing to be plugged in, costs about $125,000, while the smaller portable units are about $6,000. Fixed unit towers could cost as little as $25,000 before installation, Companion said.
Schapelhouman said the agency will look at using the LRAD voice systems throughout the district, including in Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and adjacent unincorporated areas as well as on large business and school campuses.
He said the district will look at the best locations for the warning units, and whether to install fixed devices. It will also look for funding sources.
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