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Pierce County, Wash., Improving Warning System

Siren systems are still a good warning capability.

by Eric Holdeman / February 9, 2020

This past Monday at noon I heard the monthly test of the Pierce County siren warning system. Right now, it is only used for a lahar coming off of Mount Rainier, the most dangerous volcano in North America.

I got the following information in an email:

"Pierce County Emergency Management is upgrading and expanding the outdoor siren warning system over the next two months. The sirens are currently located along the Puyallup River valley and will be expanded along the Carbon and Nisqually river valleys. As crews finish work at each site, there will be a short tone emitted from the siren to verify it is operating. You may hear this tone, but no response is required.

Work is scheduled to begin on Jan. 30 and is expected to be completed by the end of March. During this time, you may see crews and work trucks at these sites. The entire siren system will remain operational, but each siren will be offline while crews upgrade the site.

The upgrades also include new satellite equipment, strobing blue sidelights, and voice capability to alert people. The voice alert allows the warning sirens to notify people of more than lahars including flooding, earthquakes, fires and other inclement weather. The voice alerts will be heard in English and Spanish. The strobe lights are intended to attract additional attention to the warnings.

Eight new sirens are being added to help keep the community informed. These additions will bring the total number of sirens to 42. The new sirens are located at the Ashford Fire Station, Elbe Fire Station, Alder Lake Park, McKenna Fire Station, Carbonado Fire Station, Wilkeson Fire Station, South Prairie Fire Station and Riverside County Park.

Because of the added voice capability, the monthly test will also change. Starting in April, the test conducted the first Monday of the month at noon will change to a chime sound followed by a test announcement in English and Spanish.

While the siren system is being upgraded and expanded it remains a backup warning system to the county’s PC ALERT notification and other systems including the Wireless Emergency Alert, Emergency Alert System, and NOAA Weather Radio. Any activation of the sirens for emergencies will be in conjunction with these other systems.

The siren vendor is Federal Signal and the subcontractor doing the upgrades is West Shore Services Inc.

If you have additional questions, please contact Pierce County Department of Emergency Management at 253-798-6595."

I would add HAZMAT to the list of potential hazards the new system could be used for. The major North-South rail line running through Washington state comes through Pierce County and it's cities. This includes unit trains of Bakken crude oil that have proven to be potentially deadly — along with chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine, two extremely hazardous materials. 

Seven years ago, I coordinated the installation of a similar system at the Port of Tacoma when I was the director of security there. Once it was completed, the port leadership wanted nothing to do with the system, but the Tacoma Fire Department was willing to take over responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the system that covers much of the Tacoma Tideflats. I appreciated their leadership and interest in public safety!

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