State law requires counties to report on tornado sirens

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Fort Wayne - Indiana's emergency management officials are assessing the state's tornado sirens to make sure they're adequate for alerting residents about dangerous weather.

A bill passed last session by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels in March requires each of Indiana's 92 counties to submit a report on siren coverage to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

The report would include all existing and planned sirens in a county, all areas not within range of a siren and recommendations for what counties need by way of more sirens.

Even in the age of weather radios and the Internet, communities are investing in tornado sirens because of their ability to quickly alert thousands of people to dangerous weather.

Maintaining them and buying news ones is costly, but officials say the sirens - and the attention-getting wail they produce - are a crucial part of a larger warning system.

"They're not the end-all answer, but I personally believe they're a valuable piece of the overall system," said Bernie Beier, director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Homeland Security.

Beier receives about $15,000 annually to maintain Allen County's siren network. A new siren costs just less than $19,000, which makes it difficult for Beier and others in similar positions to accomplish substantial improvements.

He said his most recent task has been retrofitting older-model sirens to test them remotely to see whether they work. Otherwise, emergency management staff members must call people living near the sirens after each monthly test to see whether they heard them.

That makes it a patchy system with a lot of room for human error, Beier said.

"It's an aging system. It would take several million to do what should be done," he said.

Collecting information about tornado sirens in Indiana can be difficult because they can be maintained by counties, cities, towns, neighborhoods or even businesses.

The new law requires not only a report of the location of each siren in a community but also the date of its installation, the manufacturer and model year.

The Department of Homeland Security must adopt rules before 2010 to establish minimum technical standards for the sirens and - if requested by counties - must assist the counties in developing their siren coverage plan.

Sirens aren't meant to penetrate buildings and homes to alert people inside - they're for people working in their yards, playing in parks or otherwise engaged in outdoor activity.

Auburn Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael Good said his northeastern Indiana city maintains 11 tornado sirens. One of those, located at one of the fire department's station, dates to World War II.

Those World War II-era sirens are sturdy and easier to maintain compared with newer models that have more complicated electrical components, he said.

Regardless of their make, Good said the sirens occasionally take lightning strikes, and when newer sirens are hit by lightning, those electrical components must be replaced.

He said the lightning repair on the newer models costs about $2,000, which doesn't leave much wiggle room for a city like Auburn trying to stay within a budget of $5,000 to $10,000 a year for tornado siren maintenance.

Cause for Alarm

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