Preparedness & Recovery

No Tornado Sirens in Region Despite Top 10 Threat of Twisters

A check with emergency management directors in the region reveals that no countywide systems exist. In fact, none have ever existed.

by Chick Jacobs, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. / April 18, 2017
Damage from a North Carolina tornado. Shutterstock

(TNS) - Every spring, like azaleas at Pinehurst, questions begin blooming for Scot Brooks.

“It seems every year at about this time, people new to the area call and ask when they can expect us to test our tornado sirens,” said Brooks, the emergency management deputy director of Moore County, N.C.

“I explain to them that we don’t have sirens — at least not for tornadoes.”

Nor does any other county in the Cape Fear region. A check with emergency management directors in the region reveals that no countywide systems exist. In fact, none have ever existed, according to these directors.

The closest thing to a widely audible alarm system in the region was the old Civil Defense sirens in Fayetteville. That system of ear-splitting sirens was designed to warn city residents of sneak attacks by Communist missiles, not natural disasters, and it was dismantled years ago.

Since North Carolina ranks in the top 10 states for deadly tornadoes, wouldn’t a siren system make sense?

Some sort of system, certainly. But experts note that a system of sirens is designed to alert people out in the open. These days, most people spend more time indoors shielded from the blaring horns.

“We like to think we’re a little more advanced than that now,” said Cumberland County Emergency Management Coordinator Gene Booth. “The sirens were the best option back then, but there are more practical, efficient ways to get the news out now.”

That doesn’t mean the sirens have all faded away. Most rural fire departments have outdoor sirens, and neighbors will confirm that they are used regularly.

“I keep a record,” said Wayne Lucas, the chief of the Godwin-Falcon Volunteer First Department. “We had 465 calls in the past year, and every one comes with the siren.”

Lucas said the station did fire up the siren once last year for a weather-related emergency, when a small radar-indicated tornado raced through the area.

“As chief, I took it upon myself to do so,” he said. “But there’s no county requirement to sound the siren.”

About 35 fire stations in the Cape Fear region maintain the sirens, partly to call volunteers and partly because of tradition.

Sirens in the region can usually be heard outdoors between a quarter- and half-mile away.

Some are small beehive sirens with a range of only a few hundred yards. Others, like the huge Thunderbolt sirens at Vander and Gray’s Creek can be heard a mile away.

Properly covering an area the size of Fayetteville, much less Cumberland County, would be expensive. In 2013, the city of Amarillo, Texas, with a population similar to Fayetteville’s, spent $2.2 million to upgrade its tornado siren system of 90 sirens to cover 90 square miles. Fayetteville would be building from the ground up, at more than $30,000 per siren with a one-mile radius.

Even if the money could be found for such a system, “All the sirens do is alert people,” Brooks said. “When you hear it, you know something is up. But what: a tornado, a fire, just a test?

“There are much better ways to get people’s attention.”

Siren systems also can suffer from power failure, as the Huntsville, Alabama, warning system proved during severe storms last November. The system, which has more than 100 sirens, suffered several failures from power loss.

More recently, hackers broke into the Dallas warning system, setting off hundreds of sirens for more than 90 minutes in the middle of the night.

Instead, emergency management experts stress the use of digital alerts by phone or radio.

The National Weather Service activates weather radios to give specific information to people in the path of storms. Alert systems such as Cumberland County’s CodeRed provide near-instant coverage of a threatened area without the confusion of outdoor alarms.

“With a siren, you never know if it was heard, or what someone thought,” Booth said. “When you get an alert on the phone, it has concise information and guidance.''

Forecasting and detection technology, he said, have come a long way in the past decade. Why shouldn’t alert systems advance as well?

“It’s far better, I believe, to use today’s technology,” Booth said.

Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at cjacobs@fayobserver.com or 486-3515.

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