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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575

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City may get new emergency sirens

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Martinsville likely will get new emergency warning sirens after all.

The question is, “How soon?”

City and state officials said Tuesday they have learned that the state has approved a grant of about $190,000 for Martinsville to install a network of eight sirens citywide. The devices would warn residents of emergencies — such as tornadoes — that could endanger their lives and property.

Officials recently said the grant was denied. They said their error was due to confusion over the type of grant sought. It is a hazard mitigation grant, not a homeland security grant as was originally specified.

The grant is federal funds channeled through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

Therefore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must give its official endorsement before the city actually gets the money.

That worries city Emergency Management Coordinator Bobby Phillips a little, considering the massive budget cuts occurring in the federal government.

“I’d feel a whole lot better if the letter was in my hand” saying that the city actually is getting the money, Phillips said. As of now, he only has received a verbal commitment.

“Who knows what’s going on in Washington” due to sequestration, he said of automatic budget cuts that began recently.

“I don’t think we’ll be flat turned down” because VDEM has approved the project, Phillips said.

However, if budget cuts cause FEMA to lose some of its employees, Martinsville may be slow to receive the grant, according to Phillips and Bob Spieldenner, VDEM’s public affairs director.

Neither has heard how soon the grant might be finalized.

Hazard mitigation funds, including Martinsville’s siren system grant, are “obligated for the commonwealth” of Virginia already, Spieldenner said, so he thinks Washington will send the money down to Richmond eventually.

The process “does take time ... to work itself out,” he said.

Martinsville already has two emergency warning sirens. They were sounded at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday during a statewide tornado drill. (See related story.)

The sirens are on the roofs of the fire stations on West Church Street and Starling Avenue. They cannot be heard citywide and are getting old — they were installed more than 50 years ago and originally were used to summon volunteer firefighters into service.

City officials say sirens are useful to warn people who are outdoors, asleep or otherwise might not hear emergency messages distributed, for instance, via television, radio, cell phones and the Internet.

The city participates in a “reverse 911” system that calls residents in the event of certain types of emergencies. Yet that system is too slow to warn people of tornadoes and other types of severe weather that strike quickly, according to Phillips.

Exact locations where sirens would be installed in Martinsville have not yet been determined. Potential sites include ones near Martinsville High School, Clearview Early Childhood Center, Roundabout Road, Brookdale Street near the Carilion clinics and the end of Mulberry Road, Phillips said.

Sirens would be installed atop 45-foot-tall utility poles, he said, adding that the goal is to install them on hills and other high terrain so they can be heard farther.

The two existing sirens would continue to be used, Phillips said.

Henry County does not use sirens to warn residents of emergencies. If the city installs a siren system, the county might look into installing one, county Public Safety Director Rodney Howell said.

Howell indicated, though, that the county likely could not afford to install enough sirens to warn all of its residents, considering it has outlying areas where the population density is much less dense than in Martinsville.


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