Preparedness & Recovery

Emergency Manager Explains Decision to Eliminate Warning Sirens

City will continue more modern communications with some added twists.

by Jim McKay / April 21, 2017

There is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of tornado sirens, especially in this era of advanced communications. One community decided it no longer needs warning sirens and its emergency manager is onboard with the decision, claiming there are better ways to notify residents, especially in this city.

In Longmont, Colo., with around 100,000 residents, the city decided to halt use of its 17 sirens after at least two malfunctions in 2016.

The city decided it will forego use of the sirens in favor of more modern communications tools. The decision met with moderate opposition, and Longmont Emergency Manager Dan Eamon said the sirens, used maybe three times during the last four years, didn’t work as they were intended to work anyway.

“The times that we did activate them, we saw people coming out of their houses just to see what was going on, and the only thing we used them for was to get people who were outside to go inside.”

Eamon said he got around 20 phone calls from people in opposition to the decision to quit using the sirens and several posts to the Emergency Management Facebook page said discontinuing the use of sirens is a bad idea in general.

But Eamon said the city will find ways to cover any gap in communication coverage with new methods using modern technology, like National Weather Service polygons that target smartphone users in a certain area.

“We can offer a whole lot more opt-in services to the move away from older technology, which really made a lot of sense for our community, and that’s the direction we got from the city council. There certainly always have been weather radios.”

Eamon and city officials say residents can glean information from the National Weather Service website, its Twitter and Facebook pages, and from weather radios available from local hardware or retail stores that sell electronics.

Eamon said the city was in position to have to make a decision on the sirens because the repair was needed. He said mostly senior citizens, who may not have smartphones, are the ones who have expressed concern.

The city will help by using public places like public swimming pools or assisted living facilities as places where alerts will be broadcast.

The sirens were one tool in the tool box to alert people, and not the only mode of communication, as with most communities that use multiple ways of communicating possible danger.

Eamon said in some areas the sirens may be a vital part of the public safety landscape. “If you grew up in a place like Tornado Alley that had them and you knew what to do that’s one thing, but we’re a 22-square-mile city, so we’re pretty small and I think people are used to different things here.”

“What we’re replacing is a single function thing, like a siren, that’s designed to get people to go inside with no other form of communication and that’s a pretty good trade-off,” Eamon said. “We have technology now that’s more effective, and there are a lot of places around us that don’t have sirens, either.”