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Ohio Cities Disagree On Value of Warning Sirens

Some believe outdoor warning sirens save lives; others question their effectiveness given their cost and today's newer technology.

by Will Garbe and Meredith Welchel, McClatchy News Service / April 4, 2014
A storm warning siren installed at a temporary housing park in Greensburg, Kan., in 2007. Leif Skoogfors/FEMA

Forty years after the tornado that killed 33 people in Xenia, that city and many others in the Miami Valley believe outdoor warning sirens save lives.

Others, however, question the effectiveness of warning sirens given their cost and newer technology available to notify residents of severe weather.

A typical tornado siren costs around $25,000, according to Greene County Emergency Management Agency Director Rosanne Anders. She said her agency is preparing for a countywide study this summer to gauge interest in updating sirens.

“A lot of them were installed after the ‘74 tornado,” she said.

Xenia, Fairborn and Yellow Springs are among the 13 communities in Greene County that use outdoor warning sirens, while Beavercreek does not.

“Outdoor warning sirens, obviously, are just one of the tools used to notify residents,” said Tamara McBride of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. “It’s a strong notification device if you’re outside.”

McBride said individual communities must decide whether outdoor warning sirens help mitigate risks they’ve identified in their community.

In Montgomery County, 19 communities — including Kettering, Moraine, Oakwood, Trotwood, Vandalia and West Carrollton — have outdoor warning sirens, while Dayton does not. More than 30 communities in Warren, Greene and Miami counties use the sirens as well, and some of them are more than 30 years old.

Kettering has nine sirens that are tested at noon the first Monday of every month.

City Manager Mark Schwieterman said the noise a siren produces is a “universal symbol of weather.”

“It’s a trigger mechanism,” he said. “When you hear a siren, you know you’ve got to get more information. You’ve got to get to a TV or radio.”

Springfield hasn’t had sirens since the system malfunctioned about 15 years ago. City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said, “For us it’s always been an issue of cost, but there are other tools that are as reliable or more reliable,” he said.

Bodenmiller said NOAA weather radios and monitoring news weather coverage are effective ways to stay abreast of hazardous conditions. Weather radios are connected to the National Weather Service and have an audible alarm that can be heard anywhere at any time.

“My concern has long been that (sirens) are subject to malfunction, to human error, and are less effective in urban areas and are hard to hear indoors and at night,” Bodenmiller said.

The free WHIO Weather app provides customizable severe weather, flash flood and tornado warnings and watches as they are issued, even if the app is not open. The app tracks a user’s location and provides geographic-based alerts pushed to phones within seconds of being issued by the National Weather Service. The app can wake up and alert users with a spoken voice.

Anders said Greene County residents can rely on additional lines of notification, including text, email and telephone alerts, along with radio and television broadcasts. The Hyper-Reach Emergency Notification System in use in Greene County allows emergency managers to notify county residents by land line telephone during a crisis or emergency, according to the county website.

David Anderson, Preble County’s EMA director, said farms are spaced too far apart for sirens to be effective in rural areas. He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the population does not live near a siren.

“They’re not designed to be able to alert people inside their homes or try and wake them up at two o’clock in the morning,” said Anderson, who thought decisions should be left to individual communities.

Some governments use social media in addition to other means as a method of notification, the state’s McBride said.

“Most communities that are on Twitter use it as a notification source,” she said.

Rick Murray, Warren County Emergency Management operations manager, said social media should be used only as a secondary resource. He said NOAA weather radios should be in “every house in every county.”

Above all, McBride reiterated the importance of residents knowing what notification systems their county offers.

“It really is important that the community know what the county is doing to notify them,” she said.

Xenia Fire Division Chief Kenneth Riggsby said

Xenia has replaced its system once since the 1974 tornado and has an annual maintenance contract for its 20 sirens.

Riggsby said he expects that won’t change soon.

“Honestly, it would be better if we could get more sirens to cover more area,” he said.

©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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