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Sometimes sirens aren’t enough

One of the great things that I’ve come to realize as a professional reporter over the past few months is just how much you get to learn as you try to explain what’s happening to the community.

You get a hint of that in reporting classes, but it’s nothing like the things you learn when working in the field.

For instance, before the past week or so, I’d not thought very much at all about tornado sirens, but I have recently been looking into every detail I can about them as the county looks into phasing them out and replacing them with a mass notification system.

Never once had I thought about the locations of the sirens, how far they reach, how expensive they are to buy, maintain and replace, or exactly how effective they are in warning residents of a tornado threat.

The thing that really stuck out to me most is what EMA Director Jeanna Barnes told me when talking about upcoming severe weather this weekend.

“Sirens aren’t meant to be heard in your home or to wake you up when you’re sleeping,” Barnes said.

What?

I shouldn’t be too surprised – I don’t think I’ve ever woken up to a tornado siren, but I assumed I was just a heavy sleeper. I know my parents always woke up to the alarms.

But the National Weather Service gives the same information. “Sirens are an outdoor warning system designed only to alert those who are outside that something dangerous is approaching,” the weather service webpage says.

I guess we were lucky to live close enough to a siren for at least some people in the house to wake up.

Not only are the sirens not meant to warn people who are inside their homes, Pike County sirens can not be activated in the specific area of the threat, instead warning the whole county of a threat that may be very localized.

They also only serve one purpose- to tell residents that the county is under a tornado warning. Tornado watches, severe thunderstorm warnings, flash flood warnings and more all go unreported by sirens that solely exist to sound during tornado warnings.

With only 17 working sirens, EMA can only warn residents living in the 17 radial miles within siren reach, a small speck in the 624 square mile county. While the sirens are placed strategically in the county’s biggest population centers, countless rural residents more than a mile out of a town or city have no method of being warned by the county.

This is why the mass notification system that the EMA has proposed is a good idea. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to choose between sirens and the mass notice system, but the tens of thousands of dollars in expenses to repair or replace the sirens leave the county without many options.

The mass notification system’s ability to hit landlines, cell phones, emails and social media with a variety of important emergency information for less money than it takes to repair one siren is a deal that can’t be ignored.

Modernizing the emergency alert system isn’t just a nice improvement for the county, it’s a necessary one.

Jacob Holmes covers city and county government for The Messenger. Email him at jacob.holmes@troymessenger.com.