Officials: County needs new siren system

BY HOLLY HINES | JULY 29, 2009 7:15 AM

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek recalled standing in Iowa City one sunny day as tornado sirens wailed. The actual threat was in Swisher — at least 25 minutes away.

That’s one reason locals and officials echoed the same opinion Tuesday at the Johnson County Fair: the county needs a more precise siren system.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil described the current setup as a “crying wolf” situation, in which sirens repeatedly sound in areas beyond the threat.

Officials are working to update the system, which would them to turn on individual sirens rather than triggering all 52 county signals at once, said Dave Wilson, the coordinator of emergency management.

Johnson County emergency officials proposed updating the radio transmitter units to the county Board of Supervisors at its last meeting. On Tuesday, they set up a booth at the fair among other county officials, in part to educate the public about emergency preparedness.

Pulkrabek said public education about the potential change may urge people to pay closer attention to alerts.

Most other county sirens in Iowa work under an all-or-nothing trigger system as well, Wilson said. He compared the technology to having an 8-track player as opposed to an MP3.

The transformation from an outdated relic could cost around $80,000, though a federal grant may help cover some of the expense, Wilson said.

The change would take place at the end of summer 2010, in conjunction with the opening of the new Joint Emergency Communications Center. The latter will combine Iowa City and county emergency systems.

The update would bring the system up to date with federal mandates, set to change in 2010, Wilson said.

People don’t take the current sirens seriously, said Charles Jennissen, a Johnson County local with a booth at the fair.

“I think everyone has a tendency to ignore [them],” he said.

Several people from rural areas were unsure if they would listen to the sirens or not, because they rarely hear them anyway.

“It would be nice to be able to hear the sirens out in the country,” said Melissa Priskorn, a North Liberty resident. She said her family pays close attention to TV and radio coverage instead.

Though the new radio system wouldn’t change the volume of the alerts, county officials are adding more sirens to compensate, Wilson said.

Recently two new sirens were put in place near Frytown, Iowa, and Kent Park, both west of Iowa City. More will be added as funds become available, Wilson said.

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