Editorial: Survey on weather sirens can help determine future needs

What do you do when you hear a tornado siren in your area?

The joint Fort Wayne-Allen County outdoor warning siren system is activated when a tornado warning is issued for any part of the county. When you hear the outdoor emergency warning sirens, according to the Allen County Office of Homeland Security, you should seek shelter immediately and tune into local media for additional information.

The system operates countywide, so if a tornado warning is issued for any portion of the county, all sirens must be activated. The City of New Haven maintains its own system for its residents that can be activated separately from the county-wide system, but New Haven sirens will also sound when the full county system is activated.

However, Allen County’s network of outdoor emergency warning sirens is old and requires upgrades to be compliant with FCC radio frequencies.

The ACOHS says initial cost estimates for upgrading and enhancing the system range from $825,000 to $2 million. Some may think it unwise to spend so much money on an outdoor warning system when so many other alert options exist, including smartphones.

“It seems reasonable to engage our community up-front and let you tell us how important they are to you before we recommend spending of your money on this program,” said Bernie Beier, director of homeland security for Allen County.

ACOHS is partnering with Purdue Fort Wayne to conduct an online survey to measure how Allen County residents get information during severe weather events and their use of outdoor warning sirens.

News-Sentinel.com supports upgrading of the county’s warning system, but we also think it is wise to appraise the use and effectiveness of the system before moving ahead with expensive improvements.

Information in the Purdue-ACOHS survey points out that the National Weather Service has exclusive jurisdiction to push alerts to wireless emergency alert-enabled cellphones. Local officials are exploring other notification options for cellphones or smartphones.

Other technologies available for personal use could supplant the need for outdoor emergency warning sirens, so the survey was designed to ask how important the outdoor warning sirens are to residents and what role they play in alerting the public to severe weather.

We think the outdoor warning system has a part to play in the safety of residents of our county when there is danger of tornadoes. While it is not designed to alert people inside structures, including awakening people at night to severe weather, sirens may be valuable to those who may be outdoors and not aware of alerts on their phones or may not have access to radio and TV for warnings.

It makes sense to us to upgrade the existing outdoor warning system so it will work in tandem with technology to get information to people as quickly as possible and urge them to get to safety.

“This survey will take most people less than five minutes to complete, but the responses will be incredibly important to guide how city and county officials move forward with this system,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of PFW’s Community Research Institute. “There is inconsistent siren coverage in Allen County, so we are asking for respondents’ ZIP codes to see if there are any trends in how people use sirens depending on location.”

The 10-question survey is a smart approach to helping determine the county’s future early warning needs.