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EMA hopes to make sirens area-specific

The National Weather Service gives out warnings for area-specific locations, but the EMA can only disperse those warnings county-wide.

Ever dismiss the sound of a tornado siren or quickly push the off button on your weather radio because the warnings probably just don’t apply to you?

The Huntsville-Madison County EMA is hoping to upgrade the warning system in place now from being county-wide to more area-specific.

Rusty Russell, director of the Emergency Management Agency of Huntsville-Madison County discussed the recent tornadoes at this week’s city council meeting.

“Public warning is one of our biggest problems,” he said at the meeting, addressing the problem of people turning their radios off and missing important information.

The National Weather Service gives out warnings for area-specific locations, but the EMA can only disperse those warnings county-wide.

There are 118 sirens in Madison County, and each covers about three square miles.  The number of sirens is based on population.  Russell said he estimates 80 to 85 percent of the population is within one mile of a siren.

On April 27, in an 18 hour period, 28 tornado warnings were activated throughout Madison County.

“People not in immediate danger became complacent,” Russell said.  “And it didn’t mean anything to them anymore.”

Russell said the EMA will use mitigation money from FEMA to upgrade the system.  EMA accountant Bill Sizemore estimated the cost to upgrade the system would be between $300,000 and $400,000.  First though, EMA has to find the right solution.

Russell is currently doing extensive research on ways to upgrade – if it means reconfiguring each individual siren or the central operating system.

The only county in Alabama with an area-specific warning system is Lee County, and Russell will be making a trip to its EMA to see how they do things.

“I’m going to go look at their system,” Russell said.  “They may have a solution.  Maybe the way they’re doing it is how we can do it.”

Russell said EMA recognized there was a problem a year ago but because of tight funds was forced to put upgrades on hold.

“We’ve been repairing the current system as we’ve been going along,” Russell explained.  “But we don’t want to depend on the old technology forever.”

Sizemore said that when the project is funded, it will take a few months to upgrade the system with the new hardware.  But an area-specific system will be worth it.

“When the weather service issues a warning for northwest Madison County, the sirens will just go off in northwest Madison County,” Sizemore said.

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