Officials ironing out siren problems prior to Wednesday's live test
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Feb 17, 2013 | 4769 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Calhoun County EMA worker stands beside an emergency warning siren in Jacksonville. (File photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
A Calhoun County EMA worker stands beside an emergency warning siren in Jacksonville. (File photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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Emergency management officials believe they might have fixed a glitch in their system that had the potential to prevent tornado warning sirens from functioning in the county.

At a meeting Thursday between the Talladega and Calhoun County emergency management agencies and McCord Communications, engineers said they were working to update the 800 MHz communication system between the two counties’ warning sirens, which they believe caused both to malfunction while operating simultaneously.

“They’re working on ironing out changes to the system,” said Jonathan Gaddy, director of the Calhoun County EMA. “So far they’ve had some successful tests.”

Officials initially detected the problem during a routine siren test last week, when several sirens in both counties failed at the same time. Although the counties’ sirens operate independently, the 800 MHz radio communication system between the two counties operated on the same channel, meaning data sent from both counties was lost.

It’s a potentially dangerous problem, said Deborah Gaither, director of the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency. Since 2002, there have been 23 instances when both counties were under simultaneous tornado warnings.

“I’m glad we detected the problem during a test,” Gaither said. “Now we can work toward making sure we don’t have a failure in a real situation.”

Engineers have taken two steps to fix the problem, Gaddy said. First, they have opened up more channels for the counties to use. Second, they are working on upgrading the system so counties can overlap on the same channel without losing data.

Gaddy said several “silent tests” have shown improvements, but a “live test” will be conducted on Wednesday at 9 a.m. The test will coincide with the National Weather Service’s Severe Weather Awareness Week and tornado drill day, happening throughout the state.

“That’s the closest to a real-world scenario situation we can have,” Gaddy said.

As of Thursday, Gaither said, engineers told officials 95 percent of the sirens were in working order.

“We told them that number was unacceptable,” Gaither said. “The other 5 percent is just as important. We need to get to 100 percent.”

Gaddy said he feels confident that with the changes being made in the system, the problem should be fixed for Wednesday’s test. If some of the county’s 108 sirens still malfunction, he said the engineers will still be able to pinpoint which sirens aren’t working properly and why and make proper adjustments.

In a worst-case scenario, however, Gaither said it’s important for residents to report failures.

“If you’re outside and can’t hear the sirens (during the test), you need to contact your local Emergency Management Agency,” she said.

Gaddy said while the communication system can automatically tell officials if sirens are malfunctioning, reports from the public, especially detailed and specific locations, can help corroborate information provided by the system.

It’s also important, Gaddy said, for residents to continue to use other systems, such as email and social media notifications for severe weather alerts.

“The first thing people do when they hear a siren is they try to find out what’s going on,” Gaddy said. “That’s why having all these systems working together is so important.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.

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