Officials unaware of funding to fix broken tornado sirens

Published: .
Updated: .

Reporter: Bob Segall
Producer: Gerry Lanosga

As severe weather moves into central Indiana, there is cause for alarm - beginning with the alarms themselves.

13 Investigates revealed that local tornado sirens have failed thousands of times, that some of them are broken beyond repair, and that nearly 200,000 people in the metropolitan area live where there are no tornado sirens at all.

County officials say while they know the situation is a safety concern, there's just isn't enough funding to address it. As Hamilton County Emergency Management Director David Bice said: "In the end, it comes down to money."

Over and over, we heard similar comments:

In Boone County: "It's just not there."

In Putnam County: "Funding - there is no funding."

And in Hancock County: "There really is no state or federal grants available for that."

Actually, while that might have been true in the past, it's not anymore. Eyewitness News has learned this year for the first time local communities can use federal homeland security grant money - the state's current share is $34 million - to buy or fix outdoor warning sirens.

But many county emergency officials weren't aware they could do that.

Kim Hyten, emergency management director in Putnam County, said he didn't realize homeland security grants can now be used to prepare for tornados. As a result, Putnam County is using its grant money to prepare for something else.

"Weapons of mass destruction," Hyten said.

That's right - weapons of mass destruction. This year, Putnam County spent most of its $58,000 homeland security grant to buy dozens of gas masks, boxes full of chemical suits, a plutonium-detecting gamma and neutron rae radiological monitor and, for good measure, this rural county about fifty miles west of Indianapolis also ordered plenty of weapons of mass destruction test strips.

But asked whether weapons of mass destruction are a concern, Hyten replied: "The weapons of mass destruction - I don't believe this county has ever, when we did our terrorism protection plan, ever looked at that we'd be a targeted site."

Putnam County is not alone. So far this year, 39 Indiana counties have applied for homeland security grants. Only two of them - Jasper and Carroll - plan to use any of the money for warning sirens. The rest are using their grant money for items such as night vision scopes, gas detectors and chemical warfare suits -- items assocaited with terrorism. (Click here for a detailed list of counties' homeland security spending.)

But what's the bigger threat to Indiana - terrorism or tornadoes?

The state's emergency response director, Phil Roberts, knows the answer: "You can never count out terrorism but one thing we know for sure is history has told us over and over and over again that we're going to have severe weather."

Roberts said warning residents about severe weather should be a priority. But even he didn't realize federal money can now be used to help pay for local warning sirens.

"I don't know all the federal regulations involved there," he said.

That helps explain why Boone County just spent $50,000 on a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive incidents response vehicle and another $15,000 on special headsets for the county SWAT team, while none of its grant money went toward much-needed sirens.

"We didn't realize you can do that with homeland security money," said Mike Martin, the county's emergency management director, who says Boone County could use at least forty more outdoor warning sirens.

Martin said if state or federal officials had told him federal funds are now available for warning sirens, it could have made a big difference.

"There's a good possibility" he would have made a different decision, he said.

There is still another way communities can pay for new warning sirens. The state legislature this year expanded the state's Barrett Law, which allows local governments to charge residents dedicated fees to make certain infrastructure improvements. The change allows the fees for warning sirens.

Already, towns in Madison County are considering taking that step, according to officials there.

Some emergency management directors say they would rather use Barrett Law money for sirens than homeland security grants because there are other important needs they can use the state money for.

"We're trying to spend those dollars where it doesn't just benefit one community (but) where it benefits all 130,000 residents in the county," said Madison County Emergency Management Director C.R. Brown.

That approach gets the endorsement of some state lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Wyss (R-Fort Wayne), chairman of the senate homeland security committee. Wyss said the legislature passed the Barrett Law amendment to deal with sirens, while homeland security grants are generally meant for items that can be used to prepare for terrorism.

"I think monies that come out of homeland security should be on those type of items which are logical for their law enforcement for the type of terrorism that could attack," Wyss said.

Even Wyss, however, acknowledged: "Obviously there are more incidents of weather than there have been incidents of terrorism."

For their part, some county leaders say this investigation has sent a loud message that millions of dollars are available to help fund tornado warning sirens -- and they say they'll try to take advantage of that next year.

"Absolutely," said Boone County's Martin of the homeland security grants. "That would be a good use of that money."

Homeland security grant program funding allocations

Grant spending plan breakdown for Hamilton County

Marion County strategy implementation plan

County-by-county itemized grant allocations

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