Cold War-era sirens may be revived for terrorism warning

Monday, July 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The wail of an outdoor siren put Kenneth Jacobs on notice that danger was approaching before tornadoes struck near his home in May.

``It was loud,'' said Jacobs, whose home was undamaged during two days of twisters. ``It made you more on guard for what was going on.''

Sirens have long been used for storm disasters, but now the Federal Emergency Management Agency is studying whether they can warn people of biological, chemical or nuclear attack.

Cities including Oklahoma City, Chicago and Dallas have upgraded their outdoor warning systems with a type of siren that can carry voice announcements _ an idea that officials say took on added importance in the post-Sept. 11 world.

``You have all kinds of new systems,'' said Timothy Putprush, a telecommunications specialist with FEMA. ``You originate a message. You need to get it out to the population.''

Thousands of sirens were built across the country during the Cold War to warn citizens in case of nuclear attack, but the federal government stopped the program and the sirens fell silent in many of the nation's largest cities. Other cities put them to use to warn of tornadoes.

But terrorism warnings emerged as a new use for the sirens after Sept. 11. The federal government is currently updating the nation's civil preparedness guide to discuss improved ways of notifying the public of emergencies, and that includes the use of sirens.

In Oklahoma City, taxpayers agreed to spend $4.5 million several years ago to upgrade its Cold War-era warning system with 181 new sirens covering a 622-square-mile area in the city.

The sirens, together with news reports and special radios that emit a loud alarm in times of weather emergencies, helped prevent loss of life when tornadoes raked the Oklahoma City area on May 8 and 9. More than 300 homes were destroyed but only one person was killed, an elderly man who fell and hit his head while taking shelter.

The sirens can be particularly useful to people who are not listening to the radio or watching television.

``If you've got a weather radio in your house, it doesn't do much for you when you're at the ballpark,'' said Kerry Wagnon, director of public safety capital projects in Oklahoma City.

Wagnon also said the sirens could be used in the event of a terrorist attack like the one that killed 168 people in 1995.

Radio and television news reports are the warning method of choice in many large cities, where old civil defense sirens have fallen into disrepair.

``When the money dried up, the ability to maintain them, based on a perception of the threat, went away,'' said Bob Canfield, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department.

Sirens would not be of much use in Los Angeles because the sprawling urban area does not face the kinds of natural disasters for which they are most useful, he said.

``They're no good for earthquakes, and tornadoes are not our thing,'' Canfield said.

Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesman in New York City's Office of Emergency Preparedness, says battery-operated radios make more sense than wailing sirens in his densely populated urban area of more than 8 million people.

``We just don't think it's a practical system for New York City,'' he said.

While not dismissing sirens, officials in Washington are looking at other options including electronic text messaging and a reverse 911 system that would telephone citizens in an emergency, said Jo'Ellen Countee of the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency.

``A lot of people want sirens _ people who are old enough to remember sirens,'' Countee said.

Electronic messages might work for people with a cell phone, but Putprush said visitors at the district's many monuments or on the National Mall would need an outdoor warning.

``There are thousands and thousands of tourists there at any time of day,'' he said. ``That would be a great application for it.''