Smart alert: New sirens can provide info on emergencies

By Wayne Bryan Published March 2, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Severe thunderstorms brought flooding rains and destructive tornadoes to the state late in May 2013, toward the end of the primary severe-weather season in Arkansas. The damage seen here occurred in Pearcy in western Garland County. March through May is typically the most active for severe weather in The Natural State. To remind the state’s residents of this, the National Weather Service has announced that today through Saturday is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Arkansas.

Two communities in the region are taking new measures to warn residents and visitors of emergencies. The new system will not only alert those nearby of storms and other safety threats with a siren, but the devices will be able to give information about the situation and provide instructions regarding finding shelter.

Three emergency-warning sirens with speakers that can carry voice instructions were ordered by the city of Hot Springs and placed atop 55-foot-tall concrete poles along Central Avenue in the downtown section of the Spa City. The first to be installed went up at Hill Wheatley Plaza on Jan. 15.

Two other devices were placed at the intersections of Central Avenue and Fountain Street, and Park Avenue and Holly Street. Two other sirens were placed on Whittington Avenue at Dryden Pottery and near the Weyerhaeuser Co. offices.

Hot Springs Stormwater Manager Max Sestili said the original intention was for the sirens to give blaring warnings of high water or a violent storm, but he added that, because the sirens have speakers, they can be used for other purposes.

“Our original intent was to tell people about floods and tornadoes — the main threats we have around here,” Sestili said this week. “But we can now use a warning tone to get people’s attention and then use the system’s voice capabilities to let people know what is going on.”

The system will be housed in the city’s Central Fire Station on Broadway Street. Sestili said the system can be triggered from the firehouse, or remotely with hand-held devices by Fire Department officers if the sirens or speakers are needed.

We can test the tone now, but the voice hardware is not up yet,” Sestili said Wednesday. “That should be ready in a couple of weeks. We need to make sure the recorded messages have just the right information and that it is presented clearly.”

He said the new system gives the city flexibility to make the system tests different from actual warnings.

“With the voice system installed,” Sestili said. “We can explain by saying repeatedly, ‘This is a test,’ without freaking people out.”

He said the tests might get people’s attention using chimes that can be heard downtown, not unlike church bells that often sound at noon each Wednesday, the usual time for testing warning systems.

The system can also be programmed to start automatically start, triggered by warnings from the National Weather Service.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released in September 2011, states that many residents of Joplin, Mo., either ignored the warning sirens or were slow to react when a huge tornado destroyed much of the city and killed 162 people.

“We will see how it works,” Sestili said. “If it goes off too often and scares people — or worse, if people begin to ignore it, we can make adjustments to the system.”

He suggested to the Hot Springs Board of Directors that the system only be set to auto-trigger in case of tornado warnings.

Mayor Ruth Carney and Sestili have been meeting with three students from the Hot Springs Middle School’s Environmental and Spatial Technologies (EAST) program on a project that would determine the best locations for future sirens as the new warning system expands.

The stormwater manager said an additional 10 to 12 siren-speaker combinations would be needed to cover the entire city. The system works in concert with the CodeRed phone-based communication system.

Sestili said the outdoor system can better communicate with visitors to the city and those who have not joined the CodeRed service. He said his department first talked to the city board about the system five years ago, but tight budgets delayed the system’s purchase.

A similar outdoor alert system has been installed on the campus of Henderson State University. As with the sirens in Hot Springs, the devices at HSU offer severe-weather and other warnings with a siren that can emit a variety of tones and voice messages.

“This system, along with our Rave Alert text and emailing alert system, will be used to notify those on the campus about any emergency,” said Jonathan Campbell, chief of the Henderson State University Police. “We have wanted this system for years. It has been one of our top priorities.”

The system can be activated at police headquarters or from patrol cars on campus.

“The alarms have tones similar to the local tornado alarms, along with prerecorded voice messages,” Campbell said. “We have two towers on campus, and I want more if we add housing and expand the campus as planned.”

The police chief said not all students and faculty have signed up for the text and email system, and the new devices can broadcast information “quicker and in a more efficient fashion than with the Rave Alert alone.”

The system was tested for the first time at noon on Feb. 19.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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