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January 20, 2013

Council to consider emergency sirens

GREENVILLE — The spring severe thunderstorm season will be here within weeks.

Following a tornado outbreak across North Texas in April of last year, questions were asked whether the City of Greenville’s emergency warning siren system was adequate to notify residents of a potential disaster.

Many local residents complained they did not hear the warning sirens after an tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service.

The City Council intends to discuss the situation Tuesday. Fire Chief Doug Caison has provided three options for the Council to consider; keeping the current and often malfunctioning siren system the way it is, buy into a more comprehensive system at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or do without an emergency siren system altogether.

The issue is included as part of the Council’s work session, starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Municipal Building, 2821 Washington Street. No vote is included as part of the regular agenda, which starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

In a memo to the Council, Caison noted how strong thunderstorms on April 3, 2012 produced 17 tornadoes across the region, including four in Hunt County.

“The City of Greenville received feedback from over 300 citizens via the Greenville Herald Banner and social media,” Caison said. “Most complaints received were directed toward citizens not being able to hear the outdoor weather system and the fact that the City of Greenville itself did not warn the public.”

The city’s warning system includes the Herald-Banner, social media including the city’s Facebook page, weather alerts through the city’s CodeRed automatic telephone messaging system that can dial up to 60,000 numbers per hour and alert messages broadcast on television and radio.

Caison noted that a story warning of the potential for severe weather that day was included on the front page of the Herald-Banner, and all other forms of media and warning alerts provided early and up to the minute information on the storm.

Caison said the outdoor warning system, which includes five sirens at local parks and two sirens at L-3, did activate with the issuance of tornado warnings that day.

“For every person who did not hear the sirens, someone nearby did,” Caison said, noting that most of the city’s residents did receive a warning from one of the sources. “Research indicates that only two of the 300 citizen responses did not have or state they had information on the storm.”

The emergency sirens are tested by the city on the first Thursday of each month, weather permitting. A fire engine is set up at four of the seven locations to make sure the sirens are working properly.

At three other sites, the emergency dispatch calls a pre-determined business to see if the sirens were heard. Internal tests are performed throughout the month and prior to severe weather to check the siren’s performance status.

Caison explained the sirens are designed to be heard outdoors, not indoors.

“No system is designed to be heard indoors,” Caison said. “With enough outdoors systems in place, it is possible they may be heard indoors.”

But Caison also said the current warning system is not working and has malfunctioned an a monthly basis.

“The current system cost averages $5,000 a year in maintenance, with a projected cost of $20,000 this current fiscal year,” Caison said.

To expand the siren system across the city would require another dozen sirens at a cost of between $400,000 to $600,000, with an annual maintenance cost of up to $25,000 per year.

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