Meet the Man Who Makes Tuesday Emergency Siren Tests Go “WAAAAAAAAAAAA!”


Every Tuesday at noon, for about as long as anyone cares to remember, the City of San Francisco has conducted a test of its emergency alert siren system. If you need  reminder of what that sounds like, just listen right here. Or, wait a few minutes, and the siren will play today. At noon. Like always.

If you’re out of town, and feeling nostalgic for the weekly test, you can also get it via Twitter:

San Francisco’s Outdoor Public Warning System has been in place since 1942, and the system now includes 109 siren towers sprinkled around the City. Here in Bernal, there’s one (strategically) perched on Bernal Hill right next to Sutrito Tower, as well as one atop Leonard Flynn Elementary School in Precitaville.

The Tuesday tests are managed from the Department of Emergency Management headquarters in Western Addition. The test features a 15 second “wail” tone, followed by a recorded message that says, “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.” (FUN FACT: Apparently, the voice on that recorded message is Dave Morey, the former KFOG DJ.) In the event of real emergency, the sirens will play continuously for 5 minutes, followed by instructions and announcements for the general public.

Another fun fact: The Tuesday siren tests are actually conducted manually, by a guy named Cesar. This awesome little video will introduce you to Cesar and show you how he makes the siren tests go “Waaaaaaaaaaaa!”

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

16 thoughts on “Meet the Man Who Makes Tuesday Emergency Siren Tests Go “WAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

  1. Over on the eastern slope of Bernal, I always hear a second, female voice after the “This is a test” guy. She sounds like she’s speaking Chinese or something. I’ve asked a few people what she’s saying, and nobody else has heard her! So I recorded today’s siren and posted it to YouTube.

    Anybody know what’s up with this?

  2. About 10 years ago or so the mechanical sirens were replaced by electronic audio, given that the original sirens (those that were still working) had been installed during World War II.

    The warning sirens are controlled by the emergency dispatch center on Turk and Octavia. It was specifically built surrounded by parks so that if there was a major fire such as what happened in 1906, the dispatch center was far enough away from any structures that it wouldn’t catch fire.

    Originally there were 2 radio towers with horizontal wire strung between them, as was the standard in AM radio in the 1920s. When they changed radio frequencies to VHF in the 1950s, the horizontal wire was removed and one tower taken down. A tennis court was built on that spot. The other tower remained until the dispatch center’s total remodel about 10 years ago. The dispatch center is reputed to be the most disaster-resistant building in San Francisco.

    Presently I’m trying to find photos of the station from the 1920s and 30s, along with its original callsign.

  3. “Another fun fact: The Tuesday siren tests are actually conducted manually, by a guy named Cesar.”

    That is unbelievable to me. Such an easy thing to automate. Not that I’m suggesting that Cesar lose his job, but I imagine he has more important things to do than push a button every Tuesday at noon.

    • Think this through. Really, walk back the whole workflow. What is being done here?

      It’s a _test_. Surely, “every Tuesday at noon!” will be effortless to automate. No need for ol’ Cesar then!

      But wait. What is this thing for? It’s for _emergencies_. Are emergencies automated? Quite the contrary. Emergencies could be anything, anytime. And if one were to occur…

      • So you’re saying that just because we need an actual person to push the button in an emergency, that the test of the system can’t be automated? Okay, so all crash tests of cars should be conducted by a person, not a machine or crash test dummy? Or, all testing of websites should be performed by a person rather than a test automation script?

        While I disagree with your logic, I also understand what you’re saying. I just personally think that having a person push that button every week is a waste of time and resources.

      • What is the most fallible moving part in the system? Why would you bother with testing everything _but_ that (and annoying the entire city in the process)?

        (With apologies to trusty Cesar)

      • 1) Automation sometimes fails. (Gasp!)

        2) Two minutes out of this guy’s day (and believe me, 911 dispatchers earn their pay) is a “waste of time and resources?!?!?”

        Automation: Because a thing CAN be done, does not mean it SHOULD be done.

  4. I remember a couple of years ago when the siren was set off accidentally on a Sunday afternoon which was certainly jarring at first. Luckily the “This is just a test” followed the siren.

    According to this WSJ article, the siren has never been used in an actual emergency in the over 70 years it has been around, not even for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake:

    I guess it pays to be prepared, though?

  5. “Here in Bernal, there’s one (strategically) perched on Bernal Hill right next to Sutrito Tower, as well as one atop Leonard Flynn Elementary School in Precitaville.”

    There is also one atop a pole at Paul Revere School over on the South side.

    • Approximately 300 feet from my house.

      But this is an emergency siren, you say? I always thought it was my personal Street Cleaning reminder, Tue 12 noon to 2pm…

  6. Another fun fact. Those of us who are ham radio operators (yep, I’m the guy with the big antenna on Precita) frequently participate in a Tuesday talknet shortly after the siren test. Hams all over the city tune in to 146.790 and broadcast their location and whether or not they heard the sirens. This information is collected by the organizers and passed along to the Department or Emergency Management so they know which sirens are working and which are broken.

  7. Also, regarding the first frame of the Cesar video that graces this post… Why can’t I use tray 3? And if I can’t use it, why is it there? Now THAT’s a waste of resources!


  8. On the East Side of Bernal we can hear the sirens loud and clear, but cannot understand a word being said in either English or Cantonese. If there is ever a real emergency, I am doubtful that those of us on this side of the hill would know what it was.

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