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County explores options for sending mass weather, emergency alerts

Pike County EMA Director Jeanna Barnes pitched the idea of a mass notification system on Monday to the Pike County Commission after finding out that a failed siren in Goshen will be costly to repair or replace.

Barnes detailed the cost of replacing and repairing the siren to the commission and told members that nine more of the county’s 18 sirens are in the same situation as the Goshen siren if they were to fail.

“Each siren has a ‘siren box’ that is attached to the lower level of the pole, usually within ladder reach,” Barnes said on Thursday. “These boxes contain the ‘brains’ so-to-speak. In this box, there are several parts and many of those we have been able to replace or repair as it became necessary.

“However, the particular part that would need to be replaced on the siren at the Goshen Fire Department has been discontinued. Options that we have available in this situation would be to have the siren box upgraded; move one of the newer sirens to this location (in which we would still lose a siren);or leave it as is and take it down.

“To upgrade the siren, our maintenance representative informed us it would easily be in excess of $10,000. Moving one of the newer sirens to this location would be approximately $8,000 and we would still be losing a siren.”

Barnes also said that new sirens would cost $20,000 to $30,000 each. The county spent $19,000 each on seven sirens purchased in 2008. Comparatively, the mass notification system would cost $8,000 to install and $6,500 for every year following. Barnes reported an annual budget of about $10,000 for sirens, which includes about $6,000 to $7,000 of preventative maintenance.

Barnes explained that the notification system has much more versatility than the sirens have.

“Not only would this service be used for tornado warnings, it would be utilized for any weather watches, warnings, and advisories,” Barnes said. “The tornado sirens are only activated during a tornado warning. In addition to weather notifications, we can alert citizens with information regarding road conditions and closures, hazardous materials incidents, traffic rerouting, etc.”

Commissioner Homer Wright brought up a potential issue with the system though at the meeting on Monday: what about the older citizens who may not use cell phones and emails actively?

Barnes explained in the meeting that the system also alerts landline phones, and she elaborated on Thursday.

“The landline feature will also recognize an answering machine and will continue to call for a certain number of times if the landline is not answered,” Barnes said.

Barnes also noted some inefficiency with the tornado sirens.

“Our current siren system consists of 18 sirens, with 17 of them functioning,” Barnes said. “Each siren will cover about a one mile radius on a clear day. They are not intended to wake you up, to be heard inside your home, or to tell you what part of the county is in the warned area.

“If we are issued a tornado warning for the China Grove area, every siren is activated. So you may be hearing a siren in Tarentum and not even be in the warned area. The notification system will allow you to quickly see the areas that are included in the warning.”

The new system wouldn’t immediately replace the sirens; sirens would continue to operate as long as they don’t go down. Barnes proposed phasing out the sirens as they break.

This would not affect sirens in the City of Troy as they are independent of the county’s sirens, meaning Troy residents would get the benefits of both systems.

Barnes said it’s impossible to have a perfect system.

“One of the most important things I would like to stress is that there is no perfect solution and there is no system that will be 100 percent accurate,” Barnes said “However, the mass notification system that has been presented to the Pike County Commission will allow us to reach more people, in a much more prompt manner, and with more information to guide them before, during, and after a disaster.

“As citizens, we have to take on the personal responsibility of being prepared, being informed, and being ready for any disaster that we may face. I honestly believe we can reach far more people with a mass notification system than we are reaching with our sirens and we can vastly increase the information the public is receiving, thereby keeping more people safe during a disaster.”

The 18 sirens, when all are functional, cover 18 radial miles in Pike County, a county of 637 square miles.

District 6 Commissioner Russell Johnson agreed that no system can reach every citizen.

“But if this would touch 95 percent of the county, we’d be crazy not to try it,” Johnson said.

The commissioners asked Barnes to bring in experts on the system and more information on the advantages and disadvantages to the next commission meeting that will be held on Monday, January 23. The work session will begin at 5:15 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 6 p.m.