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Officials blow whistle on outdated sirens

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

As severe weather season looms across the Midwest, local government agencies continue efforts to ensure outdoor warning sirens are performing at optimum levels.

Responsibilities for sirens is divided throughout Ellis County between the city of Hays, Fort Hays State University, Ellis County, and the cities of Ellis and Victoria.

The city of Hays has been working to replace outdated sirens for several years, due in part to the fact the city has grown, and because existing sirens varied in output capacities, according to Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown.

In the past, nine sirens have served as outdoor warning devices within the city. However, with greater power capability, six sirens, four of which are installed, now can cover the same territory.

The last two of the six new sirens are on order, with the entire replacement project anticipated to be completed this year, Brown said.

New computer-managed sirens are equipped with more power, battery backups, and two-way communication capability, which informs fire department officials in the event a siren is disabled for any reason.

Each night, the sirens poll themselves, reporting on functionality. In addition, when sirens are sounded, the system reports on how long each siren sounded.

"So with a hard-wired siren sitting out there, if something happens, you don't know if the siren's in or out of service," Brown said. "With this process, we have up-to-the-minute information.

"We know if our sirens are working so we can address problems."

Although the newly constructed Bickle/Schmidt Sports Complex lies outside city limits, the city of Hays has accepted public safety responsibility for it. Brown said city personnel have assessed siren coverage at the complex, finding it adequately covered by sirens located at Prairie Acres and Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Bill Ring, Ellis County Emergency Management Services coordinator, is exploring options to either upgrade or replace sirens for the unincorporated area of Ellis County, which were purchased 33 years ago.

Upgrading the controllers of county sirens could be a cost-saver over replacement of the sirens, he told county commissioners at their March 5 meeting, with a cost of $1,932 each for the eight sirens the county maintains.

The cost for replacement was estimated at $17,736 per siren.

As county officials consider the implications possible future narrowbanding of radio frequencies might have on siren upgrades, they are testing equipment and researching options.

Both Brown and Ring pointed out there is a common misconception regarding outdoor warning sirens: Sirens are intended to be heard inside residences.

"It's not the city's policy to have outdoor warning sirens that are audible inside buildings," Brown said. "The sirens are there to alert people who are out riding their bikes, playing ball or in a public park."

To alert individuals within the confines of their homes, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio is recommended, Brown said.

"The easiest thing to do is get a NOAA radio system," he said. "People need to take that personal responsibility for that weather warning inside their own home."