Triangle Troubleshooter

Troubleshooter: What about storm sirens?

Staff WriterApril 27, 2011 

As an immense storm rolled through Raleigh on April 16, I balked when the TV anchor told me to go to the basement.

There are no tornadoes in North Carolina, I thought.

Then I heard a whoosh, as if the air were being sucked out of the atmosphere.

I grabbed the kids and ran to the basement. Minutes later it was over.

Afterward, email came to the newspaper, asking why sirens didn't go off to warn of the powerful storms that toppled trees, ruined homes and left 24 dead, including four children in Raleigh.

After all, the portion of the Midwest known as Tornado Alley has siren systems that blare to tell residents to take cover.

I wondered the same, so I called the state's Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Emergency Management.

In North Carolina, it's up to the municipalities to install such systems, and most don't because of the cost, said Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman for the department.

Because North Carolina has so few tornadoes, the need does not justify the cost, she added.

Plus, terrain levels pose a challenge to sound travel, and the sirens can affect animals, such as horses.

Yes, there are sirens around nuclear plants to warn neighbors, but they are only used for plant-related dangers, McQuillan said.

And there are old sirens in Wake County from the 1960s when the country feared Soviet nuclear attacks, according to Sarah Williamson, a county spokeswoman.

Williamson said she doesn't know where they are, and she said the county's director of emergency management was too busy to speak with me. Plus, the sirens haven't been used for decades, so who knows if they would work?

Most universities in the area alert students with text messages; why can't the county? I asked.

Williamson said since last summer the county has been working on a new program where residents can sign up to be alerted about emergencies through a phone call, text or email. It will be introduced this summer, she said.

The county does have the capability to do what is called a "reverse 911" call, where an automated call is made to all county residents.

Why wasn't that done on April 16? I asked.

There was no time to make such a call, Williamson said.

How long does it take? I asked.

"Someone has to record the message played to people, and it doesn't call every number at the same time," she said. "It takes a while."

I then called John von Thaden, general manager for alerting and notification systems at Chicago-based Federal Signal. His company sells a broad range of emergency alert systems to municipalities, including sirens and reverse 911 messaging alert systems to reach residents during storms. Their systems are in thousands of cities and counties around the country.

So how much do sirens cost?

Sirens can range from $20,000 to $40,000 each, he said.

What about terrain? Can sirens work on hills? What about the animals?

"We can address issues with terrain and minimize sound where there aren't people by adjusting the size of the siren," he said.

With text messaging, email, television and radio, are sirens out of date?

No, he said. (What else do you expect him to say? He sells the things.)

But his thinking makes sense.

For one, sirens alert the entire community immediately - there is no need to record a message.

"Some people may not have the radio or TV on at the time, and reverse 911 is limited because it can't make the calls simultaneously," he said.

While he sells computerized alert systems, sirens, "eliminates the question of who deserves a warning?" von Thaden said. "Everyone can get it regardless of socioeconomic position."

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