With federal money gone April 1, counties decide value of keeping all weather sirens
by Cameron Steele
Mar 25, 2012 | 6681 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, Cleburne County Administrator and EMA Director Steve Swafford stands in front siren. Swafford is named in a discrimination lawsuit filed against Cleburne County by former 911 director Melinda Gonzalez. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
In this file photo, Cleburne County Administrator and EMA Director Steve Swafford stands in front siren. Swafford is named in a discrimination lawsuit filed against Cleburne County by former 911 director Melinda Gonzalez. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Linda Butler didn’t rely only on the outdoor weather siren in her small Cleburne County community to alert her to a tornado threat.

In fact, more often than not, the 65-year-old Abel resident gets her weather alerts either from an indoor weather radio or from a local television broadcast.

Still, Butler said it was nice to have an outdoor siren so close to her home on Cleburne County Highway 3.

“It’s a rural area out here, and a lot of people live in trailers or mobile homes,” she said, noting those kinds of residences are easily damaged by tornadic winds.

Butler also pointed out that many people in Abel live and work outdoors on their farms.

“The siren was effective for us, because of that,” she said, gesturing across a field of pine trees to where the tower used to be. “People are outside a lot here.”

Federal money gone

But the outdoor weather siren that Abel residents have relied on for decades is now silent. It was one of several taken down a couple of months ago by Emergency Management Agency officials because the federal money that paid for them runs out in April.

Those Cleburne County sirens — as well as ones across the counties of Calhoun, Talladega, St. Clair, Etowah and Clay — have for years been paid for with Chemical Stockpile Preparedness Program money.

CSEPP began approximately 20 years ago as a precaution against the chemical weapons stockpile in Anniston. The federal money paid for first-rate public safety features — like the 800-megahertz radio system in Calhoun and Talladega counties and the weather sirens. Now, the chemical weapons are destroyed; the threat is gone, and funding for the weather sirens will have to come from somewhere else.

Officials from the CSEPP-supported counties agree on one thing: The outdoor sirens are important alert tools and shouldn’t be dismantled or left to fall into disrepair.

That’s easier said than done, however, especially for a rural area like Cleburne County.

Each county is working out to how to keep the outdoor sirens — or at least some of them — functioning in their communities.

“It’s just a question of what part of government is handling that,” said Mike Fincher, chairman of the 800 MHz board.

Funding the sirens: County decisions

That board will manage the $600,000 radio system in Calhoun and Talladega counties that used to be funded by CSEPP and will now be paid for by the public safety agencies that use the radios.

But the local board chose not to cover the cost of the weather sirens in the two counties.

“We needed as many users as possible to stay on the system,” Fincher said of the radios. “To do that, we needed the cost to be as low as possible.”

As a result, the Calhoun County Commission stepped in and decided to pay — at about $120,000 a year — to operate the 108 sirens in its county. And in Talladega County, officials have decided to split the cost of their 86 sirens among the county’s nine jurisdictions, towns and communities.

Deborah Gaither, director of the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency, said it will cost about $45,000 to maintain those sirens for six months starting in April.

“That includes insurance, repairs, spare parts, utilities, maintenance of siren activation system and the personnel salaries,” she said.

Talledaga County officials will meet again in early May to discuss how to extend siren funding through 2013.

Like their counterparts in Talladega, officials in Etowah and St. Clair counties have opted to fund their sirens by spreading the cost among the various municipalities within their borders.

Attempts last week to reach Clay County officials about their siren costs were unsuccessful.

The assistant director of the St. Clair County EMA estimated it would cost about $51,000 — split among the different St. Clair communities — to operate the county’s 37 sirens.

In Etowah County, 85 sirens will cost between $300 and $500 a year to maintain, said Mike Bryant, the EMA director there.

Eventually, Calhoun County officials may have to ask its municipal governments to help fund their sirens, too. Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said the commission — in anticipation of CSEPP’s end — included the sirens’ costs in its fiscal 2012 and 2013 budgets.

But the cost is steep and future funding for the sirens may have to come from somewhere else.

“We’re going to pay for it this year,” Joiner said. “And hopefully we can afford to do it next year.”

In Cleburne County, officials decided the county simply couldn’t afford to pay for the 17 siren towers installed with federal money once the CSEPP funds run out.

Steve Swafford, the EMA director and county administrator, said it was impossible to estimate an annual cost to operate all of the sirens, because the maintenance and spare-parts requirements vary for each siren.

Still, he provided these cost approximations: First, maintenance would cost between $70 and $75 each month per siren. Second, insurance would run between $150 and $300 a year per siren. Third, batteries would cost anywhere between $200 and $400 every five years. And fourth, replacement costs could be as much as $1,500 per siren any time a speaker or other part failed.

“Whether or not a community has one of those sirens depends on how each individual community wants to address the upkeep,” Swafford said.

If it breaks, we’ll fix it … or try to

Cleburne County had 27 outdoor weather sirens. Eight of those sirens were installed with local funds and have been maintained using that local money all along. The 19 sirens installed under CSEPP were mostly in Cleburne County’s southwestern corner, the area most at risk of a threat when the chemical weapons stockpile was in Anniston.

In anticipation of CSEPP’s end, county officials moved five of the CSEPP sirens to other areas that were willing to pay for them and did not have good alert systems already in place, officials said.

As a result, places that didn’t have siren coverage before — including Beason Mill, Trickum, Turkey Heaven and Hightower — now benefit from the outdoor weather alerts, according to information provided by Swafford and Dan Hopkins, chief of the Hollis Crossroad Volunteer Fire Department.

Of the remaining 14 sirens that covered the area between the Talladega National Forest, Heflin and Cheaha State Park, five were dismantled and stored as spare parts.

That means eight sirens remain in the southwestern pocket of the county. And one is north of that, now controlled by the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area.

The burden of repairing and maintaining seven of those eight southwestern sirens falls on the Hollis Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, which is the primary emergency-response agency in the 93-square-mile area where the sirens are located. The Hollis Crossroads department has 38 firefighters and a $22,000 annual budget that relies on fundraisers like the locally renowned Haunted Chicken House to fill its coffers.

Hopkins said his approach will be to leave the sirens alone until a part breaks or a speaker fails.

Then, he’ll have to figure out how the department is going to pay to have it fixed.

“If it gets to the point we can’t repair them, we’ll just have to let them lie silent until we can do a community fundraising drive to raise money for that area,” Hopkins said.

The burden of paying for the other sirens in Turkey Heaven, Beason Mill and Hightower now also falls on the small volunteer fire departments in those areas, fire officials said.

The departments are committed to keeping the sirens functional for as long as possible, said Carl Smith, the treasurer of the Cleburne County Association of Volunteer Fire Departments.

“It will be hard to do — to give up a majority of your budget,” said Smith, also a member of Ranburne’s volunteer department.

His department’s budget for fiscal 2012 is about $35,000 — which includes money from the fire tax, a portion of county property taxes and fundraisers. The Ranburne department — like its Hollis Crossroads counterpart — has a “keep it going until it’s broke” approach to the maintenance of the single siren left within its district but outside of city limits.

“I don’t know what we’ll do when it needs repairing; I hope we can maybe get some help from the cities,” Smith said. “For us, it’s a matter if the community wants to help out to make sure it stays up.”

‘I could depend on my little radio’

About 90 percent of county households have indoor weather radios — which operate off the National Ocean and Atmospheric weather alerts, Swafford said.

The Cleburne County EMA has been distributing those indoor radios since 2009 as a way to prepare for CSEPP’s end, to encourage residents to rely on other types of severe weather notifications.

Heflin Mayor Anna Berry said the city decided not to fund the outdoor sirens within its limits, because residents primarily rely on those indoor radios. Four sirens used to be inside the city, but three were dismantled a couple of months ago by the EMA. And the remaining siren will most likely come down, too, Berry said, because the city doesn’t have the money to maintain it.

“We never looked at the exact cost,” Berry said when asked by a reporter how much money it would take to keep the Heflin sirens up. “But we knew we had a lean budget.”

It wouldn’t be prudent, Berry said, to spend city money on outdoor sirens, which take a back seat to the alerts provided by indoor weather radios.

“If we’d heard from residents about the sirens, we maybe would have looked into keeping them,” she said.

All of the 22 residents The Star found at their homes across Cleburne County on Tuesday had the indoor weather radios in their living rooms or kitchens. And all of those residents said they relied on their indoor radios more than the outdoor sirens to alert them to severe weather.

“We never could hear the sirens out here anyway,” said Bells Mill resident Keith Myers. The 54-year-old Heflin hair stylist and his mother, Reba, live off County Road 18, a rural area about 10 miles southeast of Heflin. They’ve lived there for 27 years and have always used either the television or their indoor radio as their “first line of alert” for severe weather.

Fourteen miles west of the Myers home, in Chulafinnee, Earl and LuAnn Story say the same thing: Their indoor radio, TV and computer provide them with their first warnings about tornados.

And that was the case even before the EMA took down the weather siren at the intersection of county roads 24 and 11 — just a mile from the Story’s home.

“I knew we hadn’t been hearing it,” LuAnn Story said. “But we usually just get alerts from the TV … or the NOAA radio if the weather gets bad enough.”

But some residents of Abel, the small community where Butler lives at the intersections of County Highway 3 and County Road 24, are concerned about the siren dismantled near them.

“I liked having that siren,” said Willie Freeman, an 84-year-old Abel man. “It was real effective because it was so close, and you could hear everything it was saying.”

Freeman said he’ll just have to pay closer attention to the indoor radio given to him by the Cleburne County EMA.

“I could depend on that, on my little radio,” he said.

Alert systems

Outdoor weather sirens should be just one part of a community’s weather alert system, according to John De Block, a warning coordination specialist for the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

Counties with multiple ways of notifying residents about tornados and other severe weather are generally safer and better prepared when disaster strikes, De Block said.

“We don’t want people to rely only on outdoor sirens or only on indoor sirens,” he said. “A lot of technology is out there and available.”

In that vein, EMA officials across the counties say they use a variety of techniques to alert people about severe weather — from the outdoor sirens and indoor radios to notifications by text message, email and social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

“The CSEPP sirens are just one part of a larger alert system,” Swafford said. “We have a pretty good mix of warnings in Cleburne County.”

To improve the effectiveness of the outdoor sirens that will remain in Cleburne, Calhoun and Talladega counties, officials are changing when the sirens are activated.

Currently, whenever the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning in one of those three counties, all of the sirens in that county are activated and begin to wail.

Soon, Cleburne, Calhoun and Talladega counties will switch to what’s called a “polygon” system. That means only the sirens within the National Weather Service’s polygon-shaped “threat zone” will go off when there is a tornado warning.

The polygon system reduces what De Block and other weather experts call “blue sky syndrome.” That’s when, for example county sirens are going off for a tornado warning in Piedmont, but the skies are clear in Oxford. Over time, people learn to ignore sirens and that can be dangerous, Calhoun County EMA director Jonathan Gaddy said.

“We want to do away with ‘blue sky syndrome’ as much as possible,” he said.

The polygon system also — in the long run — may turn out to save money, because it has the potential to reduce the number of sirens activated during each tornado warning.

And that will help those local officials who, on April 1, are responsible for paying for the sirens.

“It’s a big step — an important time for everyone,” Gaither said. “Success is the goal and has been.”

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.
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