EMA director proposes countywide emergency sirens to Sullivan leaders

J. H. Osborne • May 3, 2007 at 11:48 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - It used to be a commonplace alarm system in towns across America.

And it may be coming back.

Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency Director Jerry Fleenor has proposed a plan to "saturate" the county with civil-defense-type sirens.

Fleenor has made his pitch to two of the Sullivan County Commission's three primary committees during the county's ongoing budget process for the fiscal year ahead.

He's asking commissioners to consider adding $180,000 to the fiscal year 2008 budget to get the ball rolling on the countywide emergency siren plan.

That yearly funding level would need to continue for five more years, Fleenor said, to install enough sirens to reach all county residents.

Currently the city of Bristol, Tenn., has four emergency sirens, Fleenor said, and there are two in Kingsport.

Sirens used to be a common part of emergency preparedness - perhaps associated most with the Civil Air Patrol and American's angst over whether or not the Russians were coming, Fleenor said.

After the Cold War, and with the growth of other forms of communications technology, the sirens were sort of forgotten, Fleenor said.

"They had to take one off a building in Kingsport, and when they moved it, it just fell apart," Fleenor said.

Sirens might be viewed as a throwback to the 1940s or 1950s, Fleenor said, but their simplicity can sometimes trump modern technology.

"They are still probably the most efficient way to tell a lot of people in a short time that something bad is coming," Fleenor told members of the commission's Executive Committee earlier this week.

Two well-known emergency notification methods and potential gaps - which could be filled with sirens - as outlined by Fleenor:

•Televised announcements - only residents watching television and tuned to the right channels will get the message. Fleenor said many households today are not necessarily watching local broadcasts or even local cable feeds.

•Reverse 911 - even with multiple lines making the outgoing calls, it takes time to reach a large number of people, and it's not unusual for people to have their telephones ring straight to voice mail.

Positives Fleenor mentioned about a countywide siren system:

•The sirens could be activated off of the countywide 800 megahertz radio system used by county and city law enforcement and emergency response agencies.

•That technology would allow any or all of the sirens to be activated for any particular emergency - whether one siren needed to be sounded for an incident in a single neighborhood, or whether every resident in the county needed to be alerted of a situation.

Fleenor said once residents heard the sirens, they would need to then turn to television, radio or the Internet to learn details of the emergency.

The $180,000 per year for six years would fund sirens for all areas of the county, including within the cities, Fleenor said.

But he has identified four possible grant sources that could help offset the cost - or help get the total system installed in less time than six years.

"Ideally, I would like to do it in one year," Fleenor said. "We need this. Other communities are going back to having this type of siren system, but many of them are doing it after they've already experienced a disaster of some kind. I'd like for us to be proactive in Sullivan County."

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