From Galain President Rick Wimberly’s Blog “Alerts and Notifications: Best Practices For Emergency Notification Programs”

in Emergency Management Magazine

The fact that sirens have been used as alerting tools since World War II may cause some to see them as antiquated compared to the technology of today. Indeed, in many communities, the siren infrastructure is so old that it might be less expensive to replace it than update it. Which leads many people to consider whether or not sirens still have a place in the alerting channels of today.

Are they even needed?

Danville, Va., Fire Chief David Eagle says “no.” In a presentation to his community reported by the Danville Register and Bee, Eagle said that sirens are expensive to install and maintain. He argued that since “FEMA does not recommend sirens,” weather radios with battery backups would be a less expensive alternative. Not everyone agrees. Local City Council member Lee Vogler supports sirens saying they “don’t discriminate about who gets the message” and would therefore be more effective for people who don’t have computers, smartphones or weather radios.

In Ohio, we see similar questions. In an Emergency Management magazine article, Greene County Emergency Management Agency Director Rosanne Anders said her agency is preparing for a countywide study this summer to gauge interest in updating the sirens.

With tight budgets, it’s understandable why sirens may be quickly dropped from a list of emergency notification channels. But the fact is, when used in conjunction with other channels, sirens still offer a powerful weapon in the fight to alert people quickly. They don’t require users to own specialized technology; they don’t require registration or opting-in. And for people without hearing impairments, they can’t be ignored or turned off. Regardless of who you are and where you might be, the sound of a siren moves you to quickly seek information.

So, should a siren system be part of your alert and warning program? In a world without budget constraints, the logical answer is “of course.” But in the real world where emergency managers must make choices that reflect their operating budgets, this question can best be answered with a “know your community” response.

Do you live in an area with a high risk for tornadoes or chemical spills? Do the majority of your citizens have (and know how to use) smartphones or other devices that can provide alerts and instant information? What are the special needs considerations in your community? Do you have a high percentage of people who have hearing or visual impairments?

Knowing the answers to questions like that will help you choose the best channels for optimal alerting coverage. Not sure how to answer those questions? Then seek out someone qualified who can provide a relevant needs assessment that will highlight the needs of your community.