Reconsider the need for rural tornado sirens in Johnson County


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Following the tornado-related destruction that ripped through the Southern U.S. this past spring, it is integral that residents of Tornado Belt states be well aware of approaching weather. This rings especially true for inhabitants of rural areas, where there are far fewer severe weather warnings available.

Johnson County officials announced late last month that six new tornado sirens will be erected in rural areas of the county over the coming five years, part of the Board of Supervisors’ push to better protect residents. Each solar-powered siren will cost between $15,000 and $25,000 and cover an area of approximately 2.2 square miles.

While it is important that all residents of the county are warned about inclement weather, in rural areas of the state the traditional sirens are neither the most cost-effective nor reliable way to alert residents.

Prior to 2009, the southwestern corner of the county had zero sirens; there is now one located in the village of Frytown. The first planned siren from the county’s latest push is to be erected later this month in Joetown, where the Iowa Mennonite High School is located. This siren is the exception to our general opposition; modern technological alerts are not available to the roughly 140 students there, and it will also alert schoolchildren at the neighboring elementary school.

But for the rest of the sirens — at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars to the county during an economic slump — the traditional warning system makes little sense.

“These sirens will protect schools, camps, park – basically places where many people are likely to congregate,” Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan told the DI on June 23.

But how much more cost effective would it be to simply announce approaching severe weather over school or campground intercoms? And given the number of native Iowans who have developed an immunity of sorts to these sirens (or have gone their whole lives without them) how effective will their presence be?

Additionally, in this age of technological advancements, it would seem far more efficient to send out mobile alerts to people in these areas. Create a voluntary listserve, and alert rural inhabitants when necessary. Though the sirens purportedly require little to no maintenance, sending out a text message, e-mail, or Facebook alert requires even less.

In rural Tennessee, residents of Cumberland County have started using Facebook to send out weather warnings, while two other sparsely populated counties have opted for a “reverse 911 system” that automatically calls residents when dangerous storms approach. Johnson County officials would do well to look into emulating either of these functional approaches.

According to Johnson County’s Emergency Management coordinator Dave Wilson, many complaints have been filed by people unable to hear the sirens while in their houses. He noted in a SourceMedia News interview that the warnings are intended for any rural Iowans that may be outdoors. Thus, not only are the sirens ineffectual for people (or students) staying out of the wind and rain, they cover a very small amount of ground and are likely to go unheeded.

This is not to say that rural tornado sirens are not without their usefulness: prior to the 2011 tornados that swept through Guntersville, Ala., warning sirens had been strategically placed following consecutive years of immense wind damage. According to the emergency-management director of Marshall County (which includes Guntersville) following an especially destructive storm, “The track [the tornado] took is exactly where we’d put the new sirens up.” They might make sense, therefore, in oddly common tornado paths.

“We’ll never have a system to cover the whole county, and we wouldn’t want to,” Sullivan told the DI Editorial Board on Monday. “We just want to cover where people gather.” Following the flood of 2008, he said, the county instituted a “Code Red” program that allows residents to opt in for emergency telephone notifications of impending weather.

When asked about the costs to the county of implementing six new tornado sirens, at an average of $20,000 each, Sullivan believes that by erecting only two a year the price tags should remain manageable. “By spreading it out, it makes [paying the costs] a little easier,” he said.

While there is an undeniable need for tornado and severe-weather warnings in rural areas where other options are unavailable, the supervisors should reconsider the push for expensive (and potentially unnecessary) sirens in this time of financial belt-tightening. Keep residents in rural areas safe, but build on cost-effective, modern innovations to do so.

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