Emergency officials examining county's weather siren system
Questions of malfunctioning devices, a hodgepodge of caretakers and changing technology have Putnam County emergency officials looking at the future of the county's weather siren system.
Heritage Lake resident John Deegan attended the June meeting of the Putnam County Emergency Management Agency, telling EMA board members of the uneven nature of the coverage of weather sirens in the county.
The county currently has 16 sirens spread throughout the county, placing them within earshot of most residents of the county's population centers.
While operation of the sirens is centralized to Putnam County 911 dispatch, maintenance is spread between nine agencies across the county.
Individual cities and towns maintain 10 of the sirens: four in Greencastle, two in Roachdale, two in Cloverdale and one each in Russellville and Fillmore.
DePauw maintains an additional Greencastle siren.
At Heritage Lake and Van Bibber Lake, the property owners associations are responsible for maintenance.
An additional three sirens in northeast Putnam County are maintained by the fire protection district.
Of these, three are currently not working or their status is unknown. One northeast Putnam County siren is being repaired. The status is unknown of the Van Bibber Lake siren.
The Fillmore siren is known to be not working, and the county has sent a letter to the town.
These situations concern Deegan, prompting him to ask about the centralization of maintenance.
"Should we talk about sirens being under one umbrella?" he asked. "Should we even have sirens?"
The latter question prompted a lengthy discussion among those present at the meeting.
"People are depending on sirens -- particularly older people who grew up with them," Deegan said. "We can probably argue that sirens are not the most efficient ways of alerting people. Weather radios are probably better."
Weather radios are often recommended by emergency officials, but getting people to purchase them is another thing.
However, some way of hearing a weather alert when one is not in the immediate area of a siren or even inside is a concern.
"If you're inside with the air conditioning running, you're probably not going to hear a siren," 911 Director Dave Costin said.
Alerts on smart phones and cable television were also discussed as possible alternatives to sirens or even radios, but these technologies have their limits.
"The challenge we have at Heritage Lake is we have an aging population," Deegan said. "They don't have smart phones. They have flip phones, they have a wired phone on the wall in the kitchen."
Pat Quillen of Putnam County CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) added that in a weather emergency, communications systems are often down.
"Of all these things I can think of, I at least like something I know I can count on," Quillen said.
At this time, officials are continuing to ask questions about the sirens before moving on to the answer phase. While centralization is an option, it is one at which county officials may balk, considering the potential $10,000 price tag when a siren needs repair.
"I don't want to give the county council or the commissioners a coronery by going in and asking for $10,000 per siren," EMA Director Tom Helmer said.
This sort of concern, along with possible liability issues, led Hendricks County officials to reject a proposal to centralize maintenance of their sirens.
Looking at other area counties reveals that there isn't a single solution. In Clay, Parke, Morgan, Greene and Sullivan counties, a mix of agencies share maintenance costs.
Vermillion County funded its sirens with federal money from when the VX chemical depot was still operating at Newport.
The county foots the bill for maintenance in Owen County.
Vigo County doesn't even have sirens.
"There's no consistency out there when it comes to sirens," Costin said.
Regardless of who maintains the units, funding is an issue, as it always is for small communities. However, Cloverdale High School Principal Sonny Stoltz suggested seeking grants to at least offset such costs, if not funding them entirely.
EMA officials will continue to explore the issue before moving forward with any future plans for the weather sirens.