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Archive for Saturday, May 10, 2003

Some residents critical of sirens

May 10, 2003

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No one died, few were hurt and officials said the sirens sounded 27 minutes before a tornado touched down in southwest Lawrence, beating even the National Weather Service warning.

But some Lawrence residents still are questioning the county's warning system, specifically, its sirens.

"They used to wake me up at night, and that doesn't happen anymore," said Adrian Melott, who lives near Lawrence High School. "If they need to put in more, they should do it. We live in a city, we can afford it."

Melott said he was at the Plum Tree restaurant, 2620 Iowa, when the bad weather rolled in. Someone came in to say the sirens were going off, but as Melott walked through the parking lot and drove home, he didn't hear anything.

He didn't hear any sirens at home, either, although his wife had and was already in their storm shelter.

"I think we were just really lucky, and we need a better system," he said.

Bob Newton, public information officer for Douglas County Emergency Management, disagreed.

"We always get calls from people who don't hear them," he said, for a variety of reasons.

First, the sirens are not meant to be heard by those already indoors. They're meant as a warning for those outside.

Second, unless reactivated, the sirens go off only once, for three minutes.

And third, two sirens did fail to sound Thursday because of a programming error. One was near Quail Run School, 1130 Inverness Drive, the other near O'Connell Youth Ranch, south of Kansas Highway 10.

All sirens were checked Friday morning and found to be in working order, including those that didn't sound. The two sirens that didn't sound were connected to the "all-call" switch for the county.

The Lawrence siren system does not have an "all clear" signal, said Bob Newton, public information officer for Douglas County Emergency Management.

If sirens are sounded multiple times, that means the storm is dangerous and residents should seek shelter.

He said that to be sure it's safe to go back outside, people should check local media.

Newton said there also was some confusion over criteria for sounding the sirens.

The decision is made locally, he said, and takes into account several factors, not just warnings from the National Weather Service.

Debi Schmidt, who lives near Quail Run, said she noticed the nearby siren wasn't sounding but that she could hear alarms in the distance.

It is unrealistic for residents to expect the sirens to be heard indoors, Newton said.

"There's no such instrument that's designed to be heard indoors," he said. "I suppose if we put one on each block ... but that's not practical."

The sirens are only part of the warning system, he said, not the sole warning system.

People should take some responsibility for safety. Everyone should watch the weather and devise a plan, Newton said, and should have the radio and television on.

Melott disagreed, saying the city should do what it takes to make sure everyone hears the sirens -- even those who are indoors.

"If I'm inside, I'm not safe," he said. "I'm above ground. I'm not in my basement."

And he pointed out he always heard Lawrence's old sirens.

The city installed new sirens in 2001 at a cost of about $400,000.

"It worked much better before," Melott said. "We spent money, and we got something worse."

Newton was not sure of the old system's decibel level but said the city had little choice but to replace it. Installed in the 1970s, the old system was worn out, and replacement parts were hard to come by, he said. The new sirens are battery-powered, which means they can be sounded without electricity.

The all-call siren was sounded at 7:16 p.m. Thursday. A Lawrence-only siren was sounded again at 7:37 p.m., six minutes before the tornado touched down at 7:43. Sirens in western Douglas County and Baldwin were sounded at least twice, beginning at 6:57 p.m.

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