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Sirens: A Dying Technology?

As technology evolves and standards for radio systems change, are siren alerts for tsunamis, tornadoes and other natural disasters a thing of the past?

by / July 24, 2012

Often when we hear a siren, we think danger is afoot: Some may feel the need to find more information, others may begin to panic.

But will sirens eventually be silenced? As notification technology advances and existing siren technology ages, some emergency managers and local governments are asking themselves if sirens are a technology of the past.

One place where that conversation is occurring is in the coastal community of Tillamook County, west of Portland, Ore. City, county and state officials in the area gathered in July to discuss the future of the 32 tsunami sirens located in the county. The sirens are currently functional, but were installed more than a decade ago — and the equipment originated from a decommissioned nuclear power plant, said Gordon McCraw, Tillamook’s emergency manager.

McCraw said the sirens — which connect back to a 911 center via radio — are so outdated that the county can no longer get parts for them when equipment needs to be replaced. Soon, the sirens will be inoperable.

Public policy changes also are making the situation more urgent. Starting Jan. 1, 2013, the FCC is requiring all public safety and “business industrial” land mobile radio systems that are operating in the 150 to 512 MHz radio band to stop using 25 kHz channels and switch to 12.5 kHz “narrowband” channels. According to the FCC, if radio systems do not make the switch by the new year, they will be in violation of the new rules and subject to penalties.

The sirens in Tillamook currently operate using wideband radio, which will not meet the new narrowbanding requirement — making the sirens soon obsolete.

“We would have to redo the whole guts of the thing to support a system we can no longer get parts for, so it doesn’t make economic or common sense to try to keep that system going,” McCraw said about the existing sirens.

Tillamook County public safety stakeholders unanimously decided they would like to start a phase-out process for the existing sirens, although a formal migration plan hasn’t been put in place yet.

Ignoring the Warning

In any case, Tillamook is taking this planning opportunity to reassess if investing heavily in sirens is the best use of resources.

Some citizens living in regions that are vulnerable to severe natural disasters may take sirens too lightly. Some residents living in Joplin, Mo., didn’t take the area’s tornado sirens too seriously when an EF5 tornado — topping the scale for wind speeds — ravaged the city in 2011.

Joplin/Jasper County Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer sounded the sirens twice, when traditionally, they are only sounded once. But even after two separate siren warnings, some residents were still found in areas that could have put them in the line of danger.

In connection with aftermath of the wreckage created from tornadoes that swept through Alabama last year, Gov. Robert Bentley told Emergency Management magazine (a sister publication of Government Technology) that he didn’t feel the sirens in the state worked well nor were beneficial to the residents. Bentley thought people probably weren’t paying attention to the sirens. However, TV and radio did well with helping citizens respond to the tornadoes.

Not everyone is ready to ditch tsunami sirens. San Diego County, Calif., for one, continues to test and use tsunami sirens. West Coast tsunami sirens were activated during the massive March 2011 tsunami that occurred near Japan, and are credited with keeping people away from the Pacific coastline. Tillamook County activated its sirens in response to the Japan tsunami too.

The county also notifies residents via 911 emergency notifications — whether it be from SMS, email or voice message. McCraw said he believes these personal messages are more efficient than sirens.

Sirens, in turn, should serve another purpose.

“What we know now is the tsunami sirens should tell you to turn on the TV or radio to see what’s going on,” he said.

Conversation starter: Are sirens used for alerting natural disasters a technology of the past? Share your comments below in the comment section.


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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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