Warning sirens across county showing age|[04/01/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 1, 2007

They are the sentinels that are supposed to warn us when stormy skies threaten from above.

Fifteen tornado warning sirens hidden at various locations countywide, they can supplement the plodding news crawls at the bottoms of television screens when tornado watches and warnings affect Warren County.

Provided they’re working, that is.

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Not counting one other siren owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the current group of sirens was activated in 1987. In recent years, some of the warning sirens have shown signs of wear and technical breakdowns.

Residents living near one may get to hear it Monday, as the agency will test the sirens simultaneously at noon.

The tests, lasting about four minutes, happen four times a year and are necessary to evaluate how they are functioning, emergency management director Gwen Coleman said.

They are also tested silently each week, she added.

But, the sirens, protected by screens resembling waste paper baskets high atop poles, could use some work, if not replacement.

According to Warren County Emergency Management, the most recent significant upgrade to or replacement of any siren was in 1996, when two were purchased for about $16,000, plus the cost of the power pole and other accessories that pushed the price to $25,000.

Coleman said the price has increased since then, to about $20,000 for the sirens themselves.

Despite the millions in grants flowing from the federal government to state emergency management agencies for storm mitigation and recovery, Coleman said funds geared to repair structures like the warning sirens are scarce.

&#8220There hasn’t been a grant for outdoor warning signals since the mid-1990s,” Coleman said.

The agency’s allocation in the county’s budget for 2006-07 changed when the building permits office was split from emergency management and a field officer added to permits.

Meanwhile, EMA, which had operated previously as a staff of three with a director, operations officer and planner, is now funded to pay Coleman and operations officer Jennifer Thomas.

Funding for alternative methods of alerting the public when weather-related danger is about to strike is out there, including grants that use the same text messaging technology people use every day.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security made funds available this year to help defray the cost of software that sends text messages to cell phones of citizens detailing weather alerts, chemical leaks and other hazard warnings.