By BRAD KELLAR
Slightly more than half of the City of Greenville’s emergency warning sirens are functional.
“As of today, of the seven sirens in Greenville, four of them are working and three of them are not,” according to Fire Chief Doug Caison, who delivered a status report to the City Council Tuesday.
But the news got even worse.
“They’ve been down pretty much since last May,” Caison said, noting all of the sirens had stopped working two months ago. “Every month there’s maintenance issues. There’s always been a problem of one being down, two being down, every time we test them.”
City Manager Steven Alexander told the Council he has instructed the city staff to consider all work needed on the sirens as emergency repairs, in order to speed up the process.
“There’s nothing worse than having a system that when you push the button nothing happens,” Alexander said.
With the spring severe thunderstorm season approaching, the city is left with a major dilemma; whether to continue to maintain the current system, pay for a significant refurbishing of a system that is only halfway through its expected life span, pay even more for a more extensive system, or just do away with the warning sirens altogether.
Strong thunderstorms on April 3, 2012 produced 17 tornadoes across the region, including four in Hunt County. Following the storms, Caison said the city received feedback from hundreds of residents.
“It is not necessarily that the citizens weren’t warned, they feel that they weren’t warned by the City of Greenville,” Caison said.
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 and alert messages broadcast on television and radio. CodeRED is an automatic telephone notification system that can dial up to 60,000 numbers per hour, although as of the time of the tornadoes less than 1,700 local residents were subscribed to the system.
The sirens are located at Graham Park, 800 Walnut Street; Middleton Park, Spencer/Gibbons; Wright Park, 5501 Highway 69 South, the Sports Park, 3901 Leo Hackney Boulevard; Oak Creek Park, 10000 Aerobic Lane; with two at L-3 Communications, 10000 Jack Finney Boulevard.
Caison said the sirens are prone to failure for a number of reasons; including ants, birds, lightning strikes and failure of the power supply. Each siren is powered by a solar panel, which also helps charge the battery system to power it overnight. In many cases, he said, the solar panels are not sufficiently charging the batteries, causing them to fail.
Caison said the current sirens were installed in 2002 for a cost of $90,000 and were expected to have a 20-year life span.
“We can maintain the current system that we have and try to get it operational again,” Caison said, noting it would take about $20,000 just to get the system up and running. Completely refurbishing the five sirens owned by the city would cost about $74,000. 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.
“The systems are just not made that way,” Caison said. “The third option would be just to not have weather warning sirens.”
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.
Police Chief Daniel Busken said another problem is that the city has to order replacement parts for the sirens from Boston.
“That siren is down until the parts get back and are reinstalled,” Busken said.
And to top it off, there is confusion among some residents who live near remnants of some of the city’s former warning siren systems, which are no longer operational and haven’t been for 10 years or longer, and wonder why their sirens aren’t working.
Council member Renee Francey said the sirens can give some residents a false sense of security, in believing they will be able to hear them in the event of an emergency.
“We need to educate people,” Francey said.
City Manager Steven Alexander recommended that all necessary repairs be made as soon as possible, but stressed more needed to be done to inform the public about the limitations of the system.
“You keep it operational and you educate these people as to what it is used for,” Alexander said.
Caison also suggested working with GEUS to run electricity directly to the sirens, rather than rely on the solar panels.
“I’d like to do that first,” Caison said, explaining some of the sirens may have to be moved closer to electric lines.
GEUS board chairman David Dreiling attended the meeting and promised the utility would “work with the city hand in hand on this.”
Alexander also recommended that the sirens be tested again this week and promised to keep tabs on the status of the system.