Alarming news

Mike Grace

Photo By Larry Dalton

It always seems to happen on a Friday, and always just a little before lunchtime, when this capital city’s collective ears start to ring. The air-raid siren wail spreads across the city. You feel like maybe you should do something, but someone in the room inevitably explains that this is simply the day and time—11 a.m. on the last Friday of each month—that the sirens are tested. So, two minutes later, when the high-pitched tone disappears, you go back to work or back to your phone call. But we at SN&R aren’t so easily allayed and wondered what we’re supposed to do if the sirens sound at, say, 7:30 a.m. on a Monday. We called the office of Sacramento City Manager Robert Thomas, whose staff directed us to the Sacramento City Fire Department, which then directed us to the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center, where we found Mike Grace, an emergency medical services (EMS) officer whose job is to audit the 150,000 emergency calls the center receives each year, making sure dispatchers are following protocol. Grace is also, apparently, the only person who knows anything about the siren system, and he admits he doesn’t know that much.

So, tell me about the air-raid sirens.

I’ll tell you what I know … and it may not be 101-percent accurate.

It is the Civil Defense alerting system that was used in the 1950s. They’re nationwide, the Civil Defense alerting system. You can use that term anywhere in the United States, and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Dwight D. Eisenhower actually had a lot to do with getting it set up.

There are a couple of different tones they make. The warning tone is the high and low—you know, it goes up and comes back down, goes up and comes back down. What it means is you were supposed to tune your radio into one of the designated stations for information about what to do.

Actually, KFBK is supposed to be the station that you’re supposed to tune to if there is an emergency or disaster in the area. But I would think nowadays if there was something going on, it would be on all stations. They’re not going to allow just one station to do all the coverage.

The other tone is that it goes up and stays high. That meant that there was actually an attack going on—the attacks were already happening—it was too late to tune to your radio.

Where does the tone come from?

As far as the number of sirens, I think it’s about 20 or 25. They are usually big giant yellow poles with speakers on the top that look like a PA system. Usually, there are three or four of them. They’re all around downtown. There were sirens in Sac County, but they’ve gone away. They’ve all been taken down.

When I was in junior high, there was one right at Arden and Watt. It was in the school parking lot. I remember it going off. It was real loud.

In junior high, were you told what the siren was?

No, no, that’s what’s funny. They would go off, and the teacher would just talk louder for five minutes.

So, what are we supposed to do if the sirens sound?

There’s actually no protocol on that. I was unable to find anywhere a plan for citizens on what to do if they go off. And no one I talked to knows what people are supposed to do if the sirens are activated. They’ve gone away from any kind of game plan on what to do when they go off.

I don’t even really know who would have the authority to say—to call up and say activate that. It would be the city manager or the chief of police, I would think.

What do you think average people in the city think of the sirens?

Basically, unless somebody has been told by an elder what it’s about, they will generally ignore it. They probably wouldn’t do anything until it got annoying. We’re more reactive than we are proactive these days. I think we underestimate things sometimes. And we never get phone calls from anybody about it. Nobody ever calls. Sheriff never gets any calls about them. People just ignore ’em.

Why do you think the system is still around and tested?

I don’t know. Bob Thomas, obviously he feels there’s a need to keep and maintain it.

They were built, you know, for years ago, when you kinda just knew that planes were coming and were 45 minutes away, and you wanted to alert the population. …

Technology is so advanced now that I think people would know something was happening way before those sirens went off. Things have changed so much over the years. Things have become so dynamic. … In the ‘50s, things were so one-planed. Things are so complicated now.