Callers tie up 911 at sound of sirens

August 20, 2003|GARY MOYERS

When the emergency sirens sound in Boyle County, people within earshot know something is wrong.

But local emergency officials are concerned that many of those same people then tie up the very communications network needed to deal with the problem.

"One of the big problems we face at dispatch is when people hear the siren, they call 911 to find out what they should do," said James Turner, Danville's chief of telecommunications. "That ties up our phone lines, and we sometimes have problems dispatching emergency personnel because of that. We have a system whereby when the alert is sounded, we break in on the cable television system in Boyle County with both text and audio emergency override messages, and we alert all the radio stations in the area. That's where people need to get their information."

Turner thinks there may be some public misconception concerning the sirens and their intended messages and advises people who hear the sirens to tune to radio or television to find out the nature of the emergency and how to handle it.


"In Boyle County, we only sound the sirens if there is a tornado or severe weather warning, never for a watch," said Turner. "There are other emergencies that would entail sounding the sirens, but in weather related instances we only use them if severe weather is imminent."

Turner said some counties sound sirens when the possibility for severe weather exists, but the decision was made locally to warn only when there is a real emergency.

"Our concern is if we set it off for less than major reasons, people may become desensitized to the siren," he said. "We want people to take them seriously."

Emergency Management Agency Director Lennie Shepperson said when a siren sounds, local schools go into lockdown mode, and various agencies, factories and medical facilities implement their emergency plans.

"We don't want them doing that for the wrong reasons," he said. "We want them to take the proper precautions, but that should happen when there's a real emergency, not just the possibility for one."

Dispatch crew uses information from several sources

Boyle County's dispatch crew uses information from various sources, including the National Weather Service, weather spotters, law enforcement and emergency personnel, and radar, to decide when to sound an alert.

"We send out a tone over the communications net to alert all our spotters and other people to be on the lookout for severe weather, and they in turn notify us when something is spotted," Shepperson said. "Workers at the county road department are a great source of information for us, as well as other agencies."

Turner said the sirens have been used in the past for incidents like the train derailment in Danville three years ago, and he envisions toxic spills or hazardous chemical releases as possible reasons for sounding the alert.

"The point of the sirens is to push people to inside shelters so they can find out more information about what type of emergency we're facing," he said. "They are simply a notification system. Each siren has a one-mile radius of sound, but they're designed to alert people who are outside."

Turner said Boyle is equipped with text override in the cable alert system to alert hearing-impaired students at Kentucky School for the Deaf.

"To my knowledge, we're the only county in the area with that capability," he said.

Alert system contains 13 sirens

Boyle County's alert system contains 13 sirens; eight in the city and five in the county. The eight sirens in the city are newer and have voice capability. They can also be sounded individually or in concert because they are digitally controlled. The five in the county, located at Junction City, Parksville, Mitchellsburg, Forkland and Perryville, are older and operate by forced air. They are not digitally controlled, and therefore if one sounds, all five sound.

"That can be confusing," said Shepperson. "We can have severe weather in one area of the county but not in another, but we have to sound all five. It's just the nature of the equipment."

Shepperson said his agency is always on the lookout for potential grant money from state and federal sources in hopes of upgrading the equipment.

The system is tested every other Friday at 11:55 a.m. - except during severe weather periods and when major events are occurring in the county.

"We don't want to confuse everyone by sounding the siren when there is a real possibility of severe weather," said Shepperson.

Turner said he'd like to see everyone in Boyle County purchase some type of severe weather alert radio.

"They can be lifesavers," he said. "The best are the ones you can program to receive only information from your home county, but in times of a siren alert, any type of weather radio will work. It's a small investment that can save lives."

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