Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lack of sirens probably led to some tornado deaths, but sirens aren't the whole answer

Lack of warning sirens probably led to some fatalities from the storms that swept across the Southeast this week. This photo from the Macon County Times in Lafayette, Tenn., shows the ruins of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, once "a sturdy brick landmark in the Galen community." Jerry Greenway, the Times' editor and publisher, reported on "a savage picture of death and destruction never seen before in this area." A tornado killed 14 residents, and four died in adjoining Allen County, Ky. Neither county has warning sirens. But communities shopping for sirens should consider alternatives.

Sirens are "not made to warn you inside, and at one o'clock in the morning, most people are indoors asleep," Buddy Rogers of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management told Byron Crawford of The Courier-Journal. "That's why it's crucial for people to buy a $40 NOAA weather alert radio. They're battery backed up and coded for particular counties." Crawford's column is mainly about warning whistles, the makers of which say reach farther than sirens.

"In some rural areas hit by the storms, warning systems have significant gaps, making it difficult to alert residents about an approaching storm," Judy Keen and others wrote in USA Today. "A couple and their teen son were killed Wednesday in Aldridge Grove, Ala., which is out of earshot of warning sirens. In Allen County, Ky. ... there are no sirens, said emergency management director Gary Petty. Officials there offer residents discounts on weather radios." Tri-County Electric Membership Corp., which serves both counties, got a $70,000 Rural Utilities Service grant in 2002 to install a weather radio transmitter, antenna, and backup generator.

Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop channel USA Today's story in the Daily Yonder, with a quote from Harold Brooks, of NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory: "Wealthier communities tend to have (sirens) and poorer communities tend not to have them. Channeling a report by Cara Restelli of Springfield, Mo.'s KYTV, the Yonder reports "sirens cost about $20,000 apiece, with the added expense of regular maintenance. Franklin, Kansas, bought a $18,000 system two years ago; one third of the cost was handled by a rural development grant. Yet another source priced emergency sirens at $25,000. But any of these price tags is high for a small community."

Ardery and Bishop add, "The newest idea in emergency communications -- one that could work especially well in rural communities -- is to use text-messaging, computers and cell phone technology. Lake County, Florida, which has no sirens, hopes to implement a text warning system; it's waiting for federal funds to follow through. Residents would still need to put themselves on a call list. For more on Lake County's plans, see this story," by Fried Hiers in the Ocala Star-Banner. Another option is a Reverse 911 system, which calls phones in geographic areas that need to receive a warning.

No comments: