The city of Berkeley is continuing to expand its emergency services precautions through a community evacuation study, in addition to a Sept. 17 test of a new Outdoor Warning System, or OWS.
With initial results expected by the end of 2024, the study aims to better understand how long it would take to evacuate different parts of the city in the event of natural disasters, particularly wildfires, said Sarah Lana, emergency services manager for the Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD.
“We’re doing this study so we can get details and background to better inform our emergency planning and emergency assumptions, so that we can share that information with the community,” Lana said.
Campus land includes 800 acres of wildland in the East Bay hills bordering residential neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland, according to the city’s 2019 Local Hazard Mitigation Plan. The plan outlines that the northern half of campus resides in Berkeley Fire Zone 2, which is part of a wildland-urban interface donation that can be threatening if a wildfire were to occur.
BFD is collaborating with contractors to create a traffic modeling simulation to test roadway capacity and the amount of time different areas will need to evacuate, Lana noted.
An obstacle to evacuation efforts includes the narrow roads in the Berkeley hills, according to Lana. The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire saw residents backed up in streets and having to run down roadways since the area failed to accommodate such short-notice emergency scenarios. Lana added that BFD has been analyzing certain weather patterns to allow more time for orderly fire evacuations.
The Sept. 17 OWS test turned on eleven sirens around the city to alert people outdoors of an “emergency” requiring evacuation. To prevent public panic while testing the system, Lana said they used a spa chime noise.
Many residents heard the sirens inside as well as outside, according to Lana.
“We’re trying to understand through that test, how far the siren tones and voice announcements can audibly be heard by community members who are outdoors and indoors,” said deputy fire chief Keith May in an email.
Involved in these efforts is a community evacuation survey, which Lana noted will help better understand an individual’s emergency plan and the resources they have, such as the number of cars households would bring with them.
Lana also stressed the importance of student respondents filling out the survey since they provide the city with insights into evacuation approaches that may differ from the rest of the community.
With the addition of information and data on roadway capacities, Lana said predictions of evacuation times for various disasters will become increasingly accurate.
According to May, students are often less aware of Berkeley’s geography and emergency risks due to their unfamiliarity with the area. May added that students tend to have few contacts in the area they could rely on for a place to evacuate.
“The broader questions about if something happens to the campus and the campus is incapacitated for a long time, what does that mean for the students?” Lana said. “Campus is more than just a place to get an education, it may also be the place (students) live.”
May said that he believes the study will ensure new opportunities to improve evacuation strategies with the ultimate goal of saving lives.
May emphasized the combined efforts of the city of Berkeley, UC Berkeley Office of Emergency Management and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that meet regularly to create cohesive emergency response plans.
“Educating the community about evacuation procedures is critically important for saving lives and reducing panic during emergencies,” May said in the email. “We want to ensure everyone in our community has the knowledge they need to act swiftly, make informed decisions, and stay safe during emergencies.”