Thursday, April 15, 1999

8 tornado sirens didn't work

Power outages, malfunctions kept them quiet

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As a tornado cut a path of annihilation up to a mile wide and seven miles long Friday morning, at least eight of Hamilton County's 175 civil-defense sirens stood silent.

Where sirens didn't go off
Map of all sirens
        The sirens are intended to give a three-minute blast of sound to warn people of approaching storms.

        Although the network of sirens is meant to warn people who are outdoors of dangerous weather, the noise often penetrates into homes and businesses.

        But that's only when they work.

        Don Maccarone, director of Hamilton County's Emergency Management Agency, said four of the sirens had mechanical problems — one each in Addyston and Harrison Township and two in Miami Township.

        Four others — in Addyston, Sayler Park, Cleves and North Bend — did not blare a warning cry because of power outages. Residents reported two other sirens in Green Township that did not sound, but they checked out after the storm, Mr. Maccarone said.

        “This is something that's obviously very important to us,” Mr. Maccarone said. “We have the largest network of sirens in Ohio and one of the largest in the region. But the public has to understand not to rely on (the sirens) as their only means.”

        County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said western Hamilton County communities should have the option of sounding alarms when Dearborn County in Indiana comes under a tornado watch. Severe thunderstorms often move from west to east.

        “The advance notice is significantly different on the west side of the county than on the

        east side,” Mr. Bedinghaus said.

        Lisa Brooks, who lives across from the failed siren in Cleves, said the siren's silence was unsettling.

        Mrs. Brooks, 35, of East Miami River Road, said the sirens should be equipped with batteries so they work if the power goes out.

        “If it weren't for my husband getting up for work, we would have slept through it,” Mrs. Brooks said. “That's a scary thought, when you live across the street from one and still don't feel safe.”

Few have backup power
        Battery-powered sirens probably won't happen anytime soon.

        Only a handful of the county's 175 sirens are equipped with backup power, according to Mr. Maccarone.

        “We'd probably be looking at full replacement (of the sirens) for battery backup,” Mr. Maccarone said. “So it's probably not economically feasible.”

        Still, national statistics show that areas with outdoor warning sirens have much lower death rates during tornadoes than areas that do not have sirens, according to Dr. Harold Brooks, a scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

        Dr. Brooks said sirens often startpeople calling people.

        “The siren sounds and the same thing happens time after time,” said Dr. Brooks, who works for the Severe Weather Laboratory in Norman, Okla. “Dad gathers up the family while mom calls their friends to see if they heard it, too.”

        Dr. Brooks said that while technology has remained relatively stagnant on advance warning for tornadoes, the death rate associated with severe storms has declined.

        Sturdier buildings, better forecasting and education have helped reduce the rate of deaths from nearly 2 people per million in the 1950s to .14 people per million in the 1990s, according to Dr. Brooks.

        Although technology hasn't advanced much, it hasn't stood still, either.

        NOAA weather radios have improved by allowing people to program only weather alerts from certain counties to set off the alarm. Every county in the United States has a unique code, which can be programed into the radio. Each unit costs about $70.

        Some areas of the country are experimenting with so-called “reverse 911” systems, which allow communication centers to call residents and play a warning message over the phone.

        Orange County in Florida was hit by a devastating series of tornadoes 14 months ago that killed 42 people. They are now researching a superfast reverse 911 system, tied to Doppler radar, which can call up to 2,000 residents in a matter of minutes.

        The system would cost in excess of $2 million, according to Robert Lemley, director of the Orange County Office of Emergency Management.

        “Reverse 911 systems are getting a lot faster,” Mr. Lemley said. “And the radar system in conjunction with the computer can predict where the storm will go. That way you can target a group of people at risk and reduce the number of calls.”

        Mr. Maccarone said Hamilton County likely will explore a reverse 911 system, although it is uncertain whether the system would ever be purchased.

        “We are constantly looking at new technology, and to share information,” he said.

        There are no outdoor warning sirens in Florida. So Orange County is also putting its stock — and some of its money — into the proven technology of weather-alert radios.

        After the killer storms of February 1998, the county bought about 500 weather radios and distributed them to all schools, nursing homes, day care centers and trailer parks with 24-hour security officers.

Some don't have sirens
        Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, who has said the commission would not support paying for weather-alert radios out of its general fund, was lukewarm to that idea.

        “I would think a lot of those places would already have them,” Mr. Dowlin said. “And they would only need to buy one for everyone in a school or a nursing home.”

        Closer to home, officials in Symmes Township are thinking about buying some sirens to call their own.

        The township does not have any warning sirens, although sirens often can be heard from neighboring communities, said Eric Minamyer, president of the Board of Trustees.

        “Since the (tornado) has happened, and the fact that we don't have them, we want to consider it,” Mr. Minamyer said. “It would be irresponsible not to discuss it.”

        And although Crosby Township has no government-owned sirens, the Fernald plant there has six sirens tied into the county network. Those sirens cover a good deal of the population.

        Each community in Hamilton County is responsible for buying its own sirens, at a cost of more than $3,000 apiece. Likewise, it is up to local officials to decide where to place the sirens.


- 8 tornado sirens didn't work
In-home warnings considered
Middletown hears call for sirens
Residents begin planning new homes
Academy makes room for 340 displaced students
Officially: 92 homes, 40 businesses destroyed
Restoration, demolition to begin
Road closings, curfews
How to help, get help
Mail service still disrupted
County officials report on impact, response