The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Local News

June 19, 2011

Tornado sirens a thing of the past?

Officials split on best weather-alert system

PENDLETON, Ind. — In the wake of devastating tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama this spring, a fifth tornado siren will be installed in Green Township this month. But not everyone is convinced the alert system is worth the cost.

Green Township Trustee Greg Valentine is proud of his district’s four existing tornado sirens, noting that he chose the locations based on population density.

The sprawling 850-home Summer Lake addition has one. So does the Maple Ridge Elementary School. Most recently, a siren was installed at the Trinity Life Center. The fifth siren will be placed in the northwest part of the township.

For Valentine, the sirens represent peace of mind, knowing that thousands of area residents will be alerted if a tornado is spotted nearby.

At a cost of $22,000 apiece, the sirens aren’t cheap. But Valentine believes the $110,000 the township has spent is worth it.

C.R. Brown, director of the Madison County Emergency Agency, has his doubts. At a recently meeting of the Pendleton Town Council, Brown said tornado-siren technology is antiquated.

“Back when sirens were being put up, that’s primarily the only way we had to warn people. They’re primarily for people who were outside. They’re an outdoor warning device,” Brown told The Herald Bulletin on Sunday. “If you’re inside, you can’t hear them.”

In an age of smart phones, 24-hour news reports and weather updates by the minute, Brown said, the tornado siren is no longer a necessary expense.

“With today’s technology, you’ve got to look at the cost of the siren versus the number of people you’re going to alert,” he explained. “It’s a matter of preference. Sirens are $25,000 to $30,000 apiece.”

Valentine said the work crew that installed Green Township’s tornado sirens also installed sirens in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala. Sirens damaged by there by this spring’s tornadoes have already been replaced in Tuscaloosa, Valentine said. “They feel like they’re necessary.”

Brown said most families would be better served by buying a $30 weather radio.

Asked about the safety of residents who don’t purchase weather radios, Brown said, “When does government have to step in and take care of everybody? Don’t you think people should take on some responsibility for their own safety? Where do you stop?”

The National Weather Service broadcasts radio alerts 24/7 for weather-related emergencies, as well as for environmental disasters such as chemical and oil spills and for public safety announcements such as Amber alerts and 911 telephone outages.

The $110,000 spent in Green Township to buy tornado sirens would be better used to increase public safety elsewhere, Brown said. “Are you going to allow law officers in the field to do what they’re doing or are you going to buy a siren? It makes more sense to put an officer on the street.”

Brown said the way tornado sirens are used has changed over time. People got used to hearing them, he said, and stopped responding appropriately. And hospitals were burdened by the protocol of having to move patients to safe areas each time sirens sounded.

“We used to sound the sirens off in Anderson under a tornado watch, and then we’d have a severe thunderstorm come through. (Now) We only do it when we have a spotting of a funnel cloud or conditions are exactly right for a funnel cloud.”

While Valentine supports the use of weather radios, he says they have a serious flaw: “What happens when the batteries run out?”

Contact Brandi Watters 640-4847, brandi.watters@heraldbulletin.com

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