Local emergency officials have said for years that warning sirens are Cold War technology and no longer have a place in storm alerts for most communities.
Hamilton County Emergency Services Director Don Allen, who has received a handful of calls inquiring about sirens since the deadly storms on April 27, said they’re “a thing of the past” because most people stay inside with televisions and the drone of air conditioners, surrounded by walls that are heavily insulated against sound.
Even if sirens had been used April 27 to alert people to the coming storms, Allen said, most people would not have heard them or might have become complacent by repeated alarms as wave after wave of storms tore through the region.
A network of eight 1950s-era air-raid sirens around Chattanooga, once restored for storm use, has not worked since the early 1990s, he said.
Alex Rhoton, owner of Belvoir Pharmacy in Brainerd for more than 16 years, said he remembers local officials coming to the business a few years back to turn off the half-century-old, horn-shaped siren just visible over the building’s parapet wall.
In the early 1990s, the siren went off about once a month, Rhoton said.
“People would call to ask what was going on. I’d tell them that they were just testing,” he said.
He doesn’t remember if they ever went off for a real emergency.
After the deadliest storm system in the history of the South claimed more than 350 lives late last month, emergency officials’ opinions are mixed on whether storm sirens are a viable warning system.
Sirens were used in a number of communities scattered around the region during the outbreak, but emergency officials agree that a battery-powered weather radio is the best alert homeowners can get.
Many counties and their school systems use text and recorded message alerts to notify people of dangerous weather on their cellphones, and television and radio have the ability to relay information immediately, officials say.
Hamilton County did not use its reverse 911 system designed to alert the public to serious threats during the tornado outbreak.
Allen said the system, which reaches about a third of the county, is not intended to alert people to sudden targeted incidents such as tornadoes. The system is geared for emergencies involving hazardous materials, nuclear plants and terrorist activity, he said.
But on April 27, the chilling wail of storm sirens filled the air in communities such as Dunlap, Tenn.; Chickamauga, Ga.; and Scottsboro, Ala., to warn anyone within earshot.
Hamilton County and Chattanooga no longer have any sirens dedicated to storm alerts.
Allen said sirens, like the air-raid siren installed at Belvoir Pharmacy and elsewhere around the city in the mid-1950s, grew out of alerts used by emergency responders in the Midwest decades ago.
Allen said sirens, which replaced air-raid whistles, were used for years in the flatlands of the Midwest to call volunteer firefighters to an emergency. They eventually were used as storm warnings for people who spent a lot of time outdoors and had no air conditioning.
Then radio and television came along and became the easiest way to warn people.
Hamilton County has a siren system for potential emergencies at TVA’s Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Soddy-Daisy. There are 108 warning sirens in the 10-mile radius of the plant, and 99 sirens are inside the 10-mile radius at Watts Bar in Rhea County, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s website.
A survey of residents in the plants’ warning areas indicated people preferred the sirens be dedicated to nuclear emergencies to prevent a confused reaction, according to Allen.
In Chattanooga, the eight old air raid sirens around town were refurbished in the mid-1980s, with the county maintenance department fabricating replacement parts to get the equipment up and running, Allen said. The sirens were triggered by radio tones, like those used to call out specific fire departments and other emergency responders, he said.
But by the early 1990s, all the sirens had broken down, he said, and weren’t fixed.
SIRENS IN USE
For some area residents, sirens are all they have.
In Jackson County, Ala., where at least eight lives were claimed by the storms, Assistant Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Ashburn said the county’s 20 storm sirens were the only alert officials had at their disposal on April 27. The Emergency Operation Center triggered the sirens eight to 10 times through the day, Ashburn said.
The sirens sound whenever the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for the county, he said. Even so, effectiveness is spotty because of Jackson County’s size and terrain, which is filled with mountains and valleys, he said.
“But they beat nothing,” he said.
Jackson County officials plan to study electronic notification systems such as the CodeRED system used next door in Dade County, Ga., Mike Ashburn said.
Officials say that system and similar ones give officials immediate communication with individual residents, usually through their land line or cellular telephones, without tying up county networks or equipment.
David Ashburn, the EMA director in Walker County, Ga., and no relation to his counterpart in Alabama, said the county’s cities of LaFayette and Chickamauga have sirens but they have their limits.
“When you hear a siren, you really don’t know what the issue is,” David Ashburn said.
LaFayette uses its sirens for any kind of severe thunderstorm warning but also has used them for floods, a recent earthquake and other disasters, he said. He estimated that each siren costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to buy and install, with additional maintenance costs for power and upkeep.
Those sirens sounded April 27, he said, but the devices’ range is limited by the terrain.
Sirens make more sense in flat states such as Florida and for notifying people who are outside, he said.
After a tornado crashed through metro Nashville 13 years ago, the city installed a $1.3 million network of sirens.
An EF3 tornado hit metro Nashville in April 1998, killing a Vanderbilt University student in the city’s Centennial Park and damaging hundreds of homes and buildings throughout the downtown area.
The deadly twister spawned an outcry for a warning system that now consists of 73 sirens installed throughout Metro Nashville-Davidson County, according to Amanda Sluess, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management.
Metro Nashville’s sirens, which have up to a 2-mile range, are intended to alert people in large outdoor gathering places, not folks who are inside their homes, Sluess said. Nashville’s downtown area has parks and lots of sites with outdoor foot traffic, she said.
Staff writer Andy Johns contributed to this story.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
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