Cause for Alarm: Part One - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

13 Investigates

Cause for Alarm: Part One

Regions Bank building after storm damage Regions Bank building after storm damage
Randall Collins, operations director for the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency Randall Collins, operations director for the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency
Charlotte Weber Charlotte Weber

Reporter: Bob Segall
Producer: Gerry Lanosga
Photojournalist: Bill Ditton

About the Story

May 1, 2006 - Cities and towns across Indiana put their tornado warning sirens to the test in March.  The testing revealed problems with many of Central Indiana's sirens.  But Eyewitness News decided to look deeper into the area's warning systems, which include numerous sirens that are decades old.  Our 13 Investigates report found the problems are bigger than you might think – from tornado sirens that have failed thousands of times, to just plain inoperable sirens, to local officials who have no idea whether their sirens are working or even where the sirens are.        

Central Indiana is no stranger to tornados, so it's no wonder Marion County has so many tornado sirens.  In fact, with about 140 sirens, it seems like there's one on just about every corner in Indianapolis.

But how well do the sirens work?

The county tests its sirens every Friday morning, and Eyewitness News obtained the test results.  The records show sirens have failed to work properly 4,689 times over the past six years, both during regular Friday morning testing and during actual storms.

In September 2002, for instance, when a tornado ripped though the south side of Marion County, 22 of the county's sirens failed.  Two years later, when another tornado struck the south side, there were 19 more failures.  And last month, when tornados moved toward Indianapolis and strong winds shattered the Regions Bank building downtown – another 26 siren failures.

County officials are well aware of the problem.  But Randy Collins, operations director for the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency, said that even when some sirens don’t work, most of the county is still protected.

“We've essentially saturated the county with sirens so there's redundancy in it,” Collins said.  “There are very few areas in Marion County where you can stand and not hear a siren… even when some sirens fail.”

Eyewitness News pinpointed the locations of all Marion County’s sirens, and the map bears Collins – if most of the sirens are working.  But county records show several dates when more than half of them weren’t working – at least 70 sirens listed as failing simultaneously.  The reports show it's happened four times in the last six years.

"Certainly more than 50 percent having a problem is major concern to us,” Collins said.

But did all those sirens really fail?  Collins said he can’t say, because weekly tests often show failures that no one can explain.

For example, on a single test date in October, 2004, records show 70 siren failures.  But the week before, only one siren failed, and the week after, 23 sirens failed.  The county can’t explain the inconsistency, though Collins said he thinks the 70 failures is an anomaly that may simply signify there were communications problems that week.

“So it's hard to identify which ones are truly failing and which ones are just identified as having a problem,” he said.

Still, there are plenty of sirens that are truly failing.  Twenty-four of the county’s sirens have failed more than 20 percent of the tests over the past six years – and two have a failure rate of more than 50 percent.

The siren with the very worst performance is at 52 S. 15th Street in Beech Grove, near the entrance to Sarah Bolton Park.  The siren has failed 59 percent of the time – 203 failures out of 345 activations.

"It hasn’t run since last summer, I’d say," said Charlotte Weber, who lives near the siren.  "It's not a very secure feeling not to have it."

For the time being, Collins doesn’t have any hope to offer.

"That siren is just so old," he said.  "That siren is not going to work."

Collins said that siren will not be fixed, nor will some of the other sirens that now fail on a regular basis.

"We don't want to put a lot of money into a siren that may break again the next week," Collins said.

Fixing bad sirens can be expensive.  Replacing a dead motor on the Beech Grove siren would cost about $3,000.  Some of the sirens are already more than 50 years old, and the county is forced to unplug some of them that have no hope of repair. 

"There are no parts available at all," Collins said.  "They were discontinued a long time ago. The best we can do is wait for another siren to break and strip that for one of its parts and put them into another siren.  So we are robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The county does have a plan to upgrade its sirens at a cost somewhere between $3 million and $8 million.  Collins said that will take another one or two years to get in place.

Meanwhile, despite an aging siren system that continues to fail many tests, he insists there's no cause for alarm.

"You've got a great siren system here in Marion County. It's the best in the state" Collins said.  "Are there problems?  Yeah.  But we've identified that and we're making steps to improve that."

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