By Kevin Kelley
It’s a question Cecelia Baker has brought to City Council and the administration of Mayor Dennis Clough before. Why doesn’t the city of Westlake have tornado warning sirens?
Clough said his administration researched several methods of alerting residents in case of an emergency, including sirens and Reverse 911-type systems, in which the city phones residents with important information. (Reverse 911 is a registered trademark of Cassidian Communications, which sells the system.)
Ultimately, the city purchased a Highway Advisory Radio System (HAR), a low-powered AM radio station that can broadcast emergency information. The station broadcasts on 1680 on the AM radio dial.
Then in 2010, the city added the Nixle community information service. Nixle, the private communications company that provides the service, specializes in messaging systems for governmental entities. Residents can receive e-mails or text messages from the city about events such as road closures, missing persons or severe weather by signing up at nixle.com.
But those solutions have not satisfied Baker, who fears some residents may be left out of the loop when emergency warnings are given.
“Not everybody has the option of being technologically smart or talented,” she told West Life. And what about people outside at the baseball diamond or on the golf course who might find themselves temporarily away from their smartphones? she asked.
Baker said that many seniors asked about tornado sirens during her unsuccessful run against Jim Connole for the Ward 2 council seat.
Spurred by recent severe storms that went through the area, Baker again asked Clough and council about tornado sirens. Clough said the city would revisit the issue and look at all the options for alerting residents.
“We’re not concerned about the cost of the sirens,” the mayor said. “We’re more concerned about the effectiveness.”
Larry Surber, the city’s assistant director of purchasing, is in the process of researching the issue. He said he’s already spoken to 10 vendors, many of which offer multiple alert solutions, something that has changed since the city last looked at the issue in 2008.
“There’s pros and cons to all (options),” Surber said.
For example, an automated phone alert system requires a bank of phone lines, either local or in another part of the country, to call all 14,000 households in Westlake. That can take up to 15 minutes, he said, too long a time period to be effective to warn of a tornado. However, he’s investigating to see if any new technologies on the market can speed up the process.
The Nixle messaging system is efficient, Surber said. But despite heavy promotion by the city, only 1,642 people have signed up, he said, relatively low in a city with more than 32,000 residents.
“I don’t know why it hasn’t taken off more,” Surber said.
A single siren can cover about one square mile, Surber said. He estimates nine or 10 sirens would be required to cover the nearly 16 square miles of the city. Based on the estimates the city received in 2008, that would cost $128,000, although Surber is waiting for updated pricing information.
Like Clough, Surber emphasized cost will not be the determining factor on whether the city installs sirens.
“The whole issue is effectiveness,” said Surber, who expects to complete his research and submit a written report to the mayor within four weeks.
Like Surber, Walter Topp, administrator of the Cuyahoga County Office of Emergency Management, notes that sirens can’t be heard if one is indoors.
In addition, Topp said, sirens don’t provide specific information and can be expensive. If sirens are tested too often, residents will find them annoying and tune them out, he added.
The best device for warning of severe weather, Topp said, is a NOAA weather radio. Such radios receive transmissions 24 hours, seven days a week from the National Weather Service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The stations also broadcast nonweather-related information, such as amber alerts for missing children.
“For the fastest, most accurate weather information, that’s what we would recommend,” Topp told West Life.
Just this month, the county purchased an emergency mass notification system that, like automated systems, telephones individuals to provide emergency information.
Topp said the system, provided by GovDelivery, can also send text and e-mail messages. First and foremost, it will be used to communicate with county employees, Topp said, informing them if their particular office will be closed due to a snowstorm, for example.
Once the mass notification system is implemented, which Topp said will happen over the next several months, it will be able to call residents of Cuyahoga County with emergency information such as hazardous spills, evacuations and amber alerts. It will also be used to send alerts about severe weather, but Topp said the potential lag time means it’s not ideal for warning of tornados.
Eventually, each of the 59 communities within the county will have access to the system, which can make calls to very specific geographic locations, such as a single street, Topp said.
County officials explored tornado sirens years ago, Topp said, but ultimately decided against installing them.
District 1 County Councilman and Westlake resident Dave Greenspan said the decision to install tornado sirens should be made by each individual community.
“I would leave that decision to local elected officials,” Greenspan said.
But, like many emergency management officials, the councilman believes no particular device or system should be relied upon exclusively for dispensing alerts.
“They should all work together,” he said of the various systems.