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Siren funding refused
State rejects city application for a second time

Sunday, March 10, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) has turned down Martinsville’s request for funds to buy emergency warning sirens.

Martinsville applied for about $190,000 through VDEM’s Homeland Security Grant Program to buy eight sirens to be installed citywide. Bobby Phillips, the city’s emergency management coordinator, found out late last week that the grant application was denied. He said he did not yet know why.

This is the second time that the city has been turned down for a grant to install a siren system. Phillips said VDEM officials had told him sirens are a worthwhile project and the city was likely to receive a grant this time.

VDEM Public Information Officer Bob Spieldenner said Saturday he did not know why the latest application was denied.

“We manage the funds,” but the governor’s office and other parties are involved in deciding which projects are funded, Spieldenner said.

He said he would not be able to find out from VDEM grant program staff members until at least Monday why the city did not receive a grant.

Martinsville has sirens atop its fire stations on West Church Street and Starling Avenue that are sounded for tornado warnings affecting the city.

Officials have said the sirens also could be used to warn of any emergency that threatens many residents’ lives and property.

The two sirens were installed more than 50 years ago and originally were used to summon volunteer firefighters into service before devices such as pagers were used. The sirens cannot be heard citywide.

Phillips determined that due to Martinsville’s size and hilly topography, at least eight sirens would be needed for all city residents to hear a siren’s wail loud enough to realize that an emergency is occurring.

Fewer sirens could be installed, but “I’m not interested in doing it if we can’t do it right,” he said.

Because of budget constraints, the city probably cannot afford to buy a siren system without receiving a grant, he added.

There are various methods in which the public is alerted to tornadoes.

Tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service are broadcast over a weather radio system. Special receivers — many of which have alarms — that can pick up weather radio broadcasts can be bought at many electronics retailers.

Those warnings also are broadcast on area radio and television stations via the Emergency Alert System.

There also are services that provide storm warnings through means such as cell phones or the Internet.

However, city officials say sirens are needed to quickly warn people who are outside or asleep, or who otherwise might not have a cell phone with them or be near a radio or TV when an emergency occurs.

At least 20 percent of the 62 tornadoes that struck Virginia in the past two years occurred at night when people were asleep, VDEM statistics show.

The city participates in a “reverse 911” system that calls residents in the event of certain types of emergencies. Yet the system is “too slow to notify the whole community” if a tornado is about to strike, Phillips said.

Some fire departments in Henry County still have sirens that once were used to summon volunteer firefighters but, like in Martinsville, they cannot be heard very far. Therefore, the county has chosen not to use sirens to warn residents of tornadoes, officials have said.

Firefighters may not always be at the fire departments to immediately sound the sirens if a tornado is approaching, according to officials.

Also, it could be too costly to install a countywide siren system, considering that some parts of the county are not as densely populated as, for instance, the Collinsville, Bassett and Ridgeway areas, officials have said.

 

 
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