Calistoga to get an earful of nation's first quake siren

Pamela J. Podger, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Saturday, July 14, 2001

 

Calistoga -- Calistoga, the quirky spa town at the head of the Napa Valley, is poised to go down in history today: At high noon, it will hook up its eardrum- shattering fire siren to a seismic device and create the first public quake alarm in the nation.

In the alphabet soup of seismology, nondestructive P (primary) waves travel twice as fast as the dangerous S (shear) and R (raleigh) waves -- just as lightning precedes thunder. The device, if it works, will sense the P waves and set off the siren, which could give residents vital seconds of warning to get out of harm's way.

Calistoga Fire Chief Gary Kraus threw out more initials in his explanation of the system.

"Around the fire station, we call it PFM -- pure friggin' magic," Kraus said.

Kraus said that when the device picks up primary waves of a dangerous quake, it is programmed to tell firefighters in a Star Trek-like voice that "a seismic event has occurred" and automatically open the station's bay doors. And Calistoga's device will activate a 30-second siren blast to alert residents in a five-mile radius of downtown.

5.0 QUAKE SETS OFF ALARM

It is calibrated to "only get upset" in the event of a 5.0 or stronger quake on the modified Mercalli scale.

Seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, while making it clear that it is not endorsing any commercial device, said it is based on hard science. In fact, after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, government seismologists tracked primary waves to warn rescue workers in the collapsed Cypress freeway section in Oakland about aftershocks.

Mary Lou Zoback, chief scientist at the USGS's earthquake hazards program, said the more distant an earthquake's epicenter is, the more time there would be to duck and cover.

"In the Bay Area, because we live on top of the major faults, this is somewhat helpful," she said. "But it could give more warning in Southern California, where the San Andreas Fault is farther away from the population centers."

Calistoga installed the device about a month ago, following the lead of fire stations in Albany and Palm Springs, said George Dickson, chairman of the Seismic Warning Systems company of Carson City, Nev.

 

A ONE-MINUTE WARNING

Dickson said that depending on the location of the epicenter, soil conditions and depth of the quake, his system could give people warning ranging from a few seconds to little over one minute. That's enough time for people to move away from plate-glass windows and chimneys, step away from china cabinets or take shelter under a desk or table.

Dickson said the device has undergone "hundreds and hundreds" of tests at the University of British Columbia since 1997. The current market cost is about $10,000 -- although the three California cities spent less than that, so the company can work out any system "hiccups."

In Palm Springs, emergency officials want the device to not only open doors, alert firefighters, switch on the lights and the dispatch radio, but also start the fire engines.

"We live in high earthquake country," said Blake Goetz, the assistant fire chief in Palm Springs, which paid about $3,500 for its system. "This is a small investment to protect the community, so why not go for the highest technology that we've been able to find."

But with Calistoga's smaller, part-time firefighting force and their seven engines, that kind of souped-up modification might be too highfalutin.

"Quite frankly, if things didn't fall down in a quake, no one is going to go down to the station to turn the trucks off," Kraus said.

In Albany, Fire Capt. Jay Jorgensen said the system was installed about one month ago. "We bought into it," he said. "In the event of the earthquake that is a enough of a shake (to) bend or warp the apparatus doors, it will open the doors for us, so we're ready to go."

 

TOWN USED TO SIREN SOUNDS

Kraus said Calistoga residents are accustomed to the siren, which goes off at noon each weekday, as well as about 800 times a year for fire calls and other emergencies.

"You can't hardly stand to be in the station when this thing goes off," he said. "It's like, 'holy Mackerel.' "

But the plan is for the seismic alarm to not be identical to the fire alarm, with the warning device being attached a hitherto unused button on the Cold- War era Federal Sign and Signal Co. siren.

There are four choices on the siren's panel, Kraus said: manual, fire, take cover, and alert, which is the chosen button for today's test.

And his latest concern is not what "alert" sounds like, but whether that button even works.

"This was like an air raid siren from the 1950s to say the Russians are coming," Kraus said. "All we've pushed is 'manual' and 'fire.' No one knows what 'alert' sounds like. We're hoping the siren makes a different noise. If not, we've attracted a whole big crowd . . . for silence."

Out of consideration for Calistoga's tourists, Kraus has been waiting to test the button.

"It's hard to set this thing off and have people go into a panic. If someone is here from Dubuque, Iowa, I don't want them looking for the tornado cellar!" he exclaimed.

Kathy Brady, Calistoga's emergency services coordinator, said so far the city has been spared devastation from recent major quakes -- despite being surrounded by Hayward-Rodgers Creek, the Macaama Fault, the Calaveras Fault and the West Napa Fault. She said the city felt considerable shaking with the Loma Prieta shake, as well as the Yountville quake in September, which hit Napa hard.

Kraus said the technology offers the potential to save lives in Calistoga. And it comes with a one-year warranty.

"So we're guaranteed no earthquakes for a year," he joked. "And if it doesn't work, it is because the earthquake broke it."

E-mail Pamela J. Podger at ppodger@sfchronicle.com.