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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Fix or ditch inadequate siren system

Allen County’s patched-together tornado siren system is far from foolproof. But it’s very likely the best way to protect people who are outside when tornadoes threaten the area.

For years, local leaders have debated the merits of the aging system, which was basically jury-rigged onto the county’s radio system. But a Federal Communications Commission mandate is now forcing a decision on the issue.

Leaders must decide between discarding the sirens or investing significant money to upgrade the system by the end of 2012.

“If I was to describe the system with one word, it would be ‘embarrassment,’ ” said Bernie Beier, director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Office of Homeland Security. “A city and a county our size with an outdoor warning system like this in 2011 is an embarrassment. I have no confidence at all that the system will work as I need it to. …”

The FCC is mandating narrow banding, which will move all public safety radio communications to a smaller but more exclusive bandwidth range to reduce interference.

The local homeland security office tests the siren system at noon on the first Wednesday of each month, weather permitting. And as Vivian Sade’s story on Page 1A explains, the sirens don’t always work. The Journal Gazette found that four of the 33 sirens reviewed didn’t work when tested last week. The system comprises 55 sirens, some of which are 50 years old.

The system has several drawbacks. The sirens can only be turned on and off as a whole. So when a warning applies to only a portion of the county, the sirens sound throughout the entire county – Indiana’s largest in terms of land – creating confusion and unnecessary alarm.

After too many false alarms, residents tend to ignore the sirens. That was thought to be a problem in Joplin, Mo.

The way the sirens are layered onto the radio system also causes problems. For example, sirens may not sound because someone is using a radio.

Some people have suggested that technological advances make the siren system obsolete because people have instant access to warnings from weather radios, the Internet and cell phones. But people working in their yard sometimes leave the cell phone inside. A family out on a bike ride rarely brings a laptop. And a weather radio won’t work unless it’s turned on, has fresh batteries and is located where it can be heard.

“In my personal and professional opinion, I believe outdoor warning sirens are an important part of an overall emergency warning system. We do still need them,” Beier said.

Beier said at a minimum it will cost $480,000 to meet the FCC mandate. That investment will also pay for upgrades that will allow officials to monitor the system remotely at any hour and enable dispatchers to turn on sirens only where needed. But the price tag goes up to about $2.6 million if county leaders decide to make all the improvements emergency agencies have requested, such as replacing old sirens and adding about 10 new ones.

“We haven’t made a significant investment in the sirens in decades,” he said. “Sirens are like water; everyone just expects it to be there. But it’s crunch time now.”