Jun 23 2008
By Kenneth Mullinax
An emergency siren can mean the difference between life and death when severe weather strikes.
The EF3 tornado that roared through Prattvillle on Feb. 17 didn't kill anybody -- and emergency management experts believe the howling sirens that sent residents rushing for cover had much to do with that.
Now most people in Elmore County are in earshot of emergency sirens thanks to a joint effort of the county commission and the Emergency Management Agency.
"A few years ago, we realized that Wetumpka, Millbrook, Tallassee and just a few other locations -- barely one third of Elmore County -- were protected by outdoor warning sirens," said Joe Faulk, the Elmore County Commission chairman.
"That's when we got busy and asked our EMA director to make sure city and country folks alike had a warning siren installed within earshot."
The EMA installed 28 new outdoor warning sirens, which are all up and running throughout most of county, said Eric Jones, director of Elmore County's EMA and Homeland Security Office.
"We now have a total of 58 warning sirens operating in over 90 percent of Elmore County," Jones said, "and folks in almost every nook of the county now have a better chance of seeking shelter when something bad blows our way."
The cost of safety is high -- the new sirens cost more than a half-million dollars.
But the county's EMA chief came up with several ways to fund their cost, which can run up to $18,000 each.
Most of the funding came from grants provided by the county's local legislative delegation and from an appropriation from U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.
"I'm proud we accomplished our goal by spending just a minimum of our own local taxpayers' dollars," Jones said.
Jones said sirens now serve all eight municipalities and most rural areas including Santuck, Buyck, Kowaliga, Real Island and Redland.
"One place we dramatically helped were all the areas surrounding Lake Martin and Lake Jordan, which virtually had no sirens to warn its thousands of residents and visitors of any potential danger," Jones said.
Outdoor warning sirens now ring both lakes, he said.
Redland's volunteer fire chief, Bill Drake, said the new system makes his community a safer place.
"Now our folks have more time to seek cover whenever a storm or something heads our way," Drake said. "We installed our new siren where we will get the most bang for our buck, putting it beside the Redland Church of Christ, smack in the middle of an area where lots of people live."
Eclectic Mayor Alan Nummy said the EMA placed two new sirens in his community of 1,200.
"We are just thrilled to have these sirens because it gives us complete coverage for all of Eclectic," Nummy said.
He said the city's business district, all of its public schools, and neighborhoods are now within range of the sirens.
They're a big improvement over the old warning system, Nummy said. The city had one "antique" siren on top of City Hall, operated by hand, that could barely be heard a mile away.
"Without the help of the EMA and the Elmore County Commission, a town our size, with its limited financial resources, couldn't afford to install a system like this one," Nummy said.
Jones said the sirens do more than alert residents of severe weather.
"These sirens can also be used to warn people of such dangerous situations as a dam about to break, a hazardous material spill, domestic terrorism incidents or even for the old traditional Civil Defense warnings in case of a national emergency, such as a threat of nuclear attack," Jones said.
The 58 sirens are controlled by dispatch offices five zones within the county, but may also be activated from the EMA's headquarters in the Elmore County Courthouse.
Jones said the sirens can only do so much, and that people have to take responsibility for their own safety. The sirens are designed to alert people who are outdoors, but may not be heard by people who are inside.
He said everyone should have a severe weather radio in their homes or businesses, and a plan of action for what to do in case of an emergency.