Sullivan County EMA director seeking funds for siren system

J. H. Osborne • May 8, 2007 at 12:24 PM

Jerry Fleenor says he plans to approach all the cities about contributing to the countywide project's cost.

BLOUNTVILLE - Don't show your hand.

That's pretty much what a group of Sullivan County commissioners told Jerry Fleenor on his proposal to install sirens countywide to warn the public of imminent emergencies.

Fleenor, director of the Sullivan County Emergency Management Agency, is asking the Sullivan County Commission to include money in the county's upcoming budget to get a six-year installation plan under way.

He has estimated a cost of $180,000 per year, for the six years, to make sure there are enough sirens to saturate all areas of the county - including the cities of Kingsport, Bristol and Bluff City.

The city of Bristol, Tenn., already is considering installation of some sirens, Fleenor said, and he plans to approach all the cities about contributing to the countywide project's cost.

If they agree, he said, the county wouldn't have to actually spend the whole $180,000 per year because the cost would be offset by city contributions.

Members of the commission's Administrative Committee told Fleenor to take a cost estimate out of his proposal - the $180,000 per year he's asking for - before asking the cities to participate.

Commissioner Mark Vance said if the commission approves a resolution approving the entire funding stream, the county will lose "bargaining power" with city officials.

"I'm very much in favor of this," Vance said. "We need it. But the cities should have some responsibility. I don't think the county should take full responsibility."

Vance said that stance should continue after the sirens are installed, with repairs and maintenance also being shared by all the local governments.

Fleenor again said he planned already to encourage the cities to participate in the funding, but the issue might be one of the things where city folk say "that's what we pay county taxes for."

City residents pay both city and county property taxes.

Fleenor has been talking to commissioners about his proposal during budget discussions in recent weeks. The Administrative Committee on Monday was the first group to get a look at an official resolution to fund the plan.

The committee voted to defer action so Fleenor and the resolution's sponsors can tweak the proposal.

Sirens might be viewed as a throwback to the 1940s or 1950s, Fleenor has 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 said last week.

Two well-known emergency notification methods and potential gaps - which could be filled with sirens - were 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 included:

• 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.

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