The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

April 29, 2013

From sirens to cell phones

City of Greenville changes way it notifies citizens of emergencies

Herald-Banner Staff

GREENVILLE — For decades, many residents of Greenville have heard the peal of warning sirens when the threat of tornadoes or other severe weather approached.

In the years to come, they will likely be listening for rings or tones coming from their home, cell or smart phones, as they receive a recorded message or text warning them of an emergency occurring in the community.

Last week, the Greenville City Council voted against a budget amendment to upgrade the city’s sirens, following months of problems with the units. Many on the Council said they supported the use of the CodeRED automatic notification system, a high speed telephone communication service that can deliver customized, pre-recorded emergency messages directly to homes and businesses at the rate of 60,000 calls per hour.

The CodeRED system uses intranet mapping which allows for calls to be placed to a certain geographic area of Greenville, or city-wide as circumstances warrant. The system’s main purpose is to notify citizens or groups of citizens in emergency situations. The system has the ability to be used for non-emergency notifications as well.

The Council members believed a widespread and aggressive publicity campaign was needed to get residents and businesses signed up for the system, which has been available since the fall of 2005. However, as of last week, fewer than 1,900 of Greenville’s population of almost 26,000 people had signed up for CodeRED.

The use of the sirens won’t disappear immediately. The siren at the Greenville SportsPark was recently repaired with modern equipment, at a cost of $14,500, which will keep it operational for the foreseeable future.

The Council balked, however, at spending an estimated $75,000 to do the same for four remaining sirens under the city’s control.

Five sirens were installed in 2002 at Graham Park, Middleton Park, Wright Park, the SportsPark, and Oak Creek Park and were placed into service to warn people who were outside at the park to take shelter.

Three additional sirens at the Greenville L-3 plant are part of the overall system, but are owned and maintained by the defense contractor.

As of Tuesday, all five units at local parks were reported operational, although the unit at Wright Park was said to be experiencing the same problems which prompted the emergency repairs to the SportsPark siren.

The sirens are tested on a weekly basis, with audible tests once per month and silent tests performed the remaining three weeks through the police dispatch system.

Aside from the SportsPark siren, at least one of the four sirens has been inoperable in each of the weekly tests.

Problems have been noted with the sirens for the past year, following a tornado outbreak across North Texas, which included three twisters in Hunt County.

Some residents have complained they could not hear the sirens from inside their homes, and members of the Council have noted the sirens only covered a small portion of the city. Addressing either of those issues would have cost the City of Greenville a lot of money.

In January, Fire Chief Doug Caison told the Council completely replacing all of the current sirens with brand new sirens would cost an estimated $157,000. Expanding the system citywide, which Caison said would mean a dozen sirens, would cost a minimum of $400,000, but that would not mean residents could hear them from inside their homes, as the outdoor sirens are designed to create an audible sound to alert people who are most likely outside of life threatening events to find shelter indoors.

And to top it off, there has been confusion among residents who live near remnants of some of the city’s former warning siren, which are no longer operational and haven’t been for 10 years or more, who wonder why their sirens aren’t working.

The CodeRED system, on the other hand, costs the city $10,000 per year under the current contract and is a free service for those who sign up. But in order for it to be more effective, more residents and businesses would need to register.

Signing up is available online by visiting the city’s web site at Notifications can be received through a land line, cell phone or text message and all information remains confidential. When the National Weather Service issues a severe weather alert for the Greenville area, the CodeRED system calls all of the telephone numbers registered to relay important weather information.  The call shows up as an unknown toll-free number on Caller ID.

The system has also been used to relay important information during periods of non-weather related situations, such as during a late January standoff on Rabb Drive, or in the event of a missing or endangered individual.

Local residents who do not have Internet access and who wish to sign up for CodeRED, may call the City Manager’s Office at 903- 457-3116 or visit the W. Walworth Harrison Public Library for assistance.