Pelham reiterates weather alerts approach, leaving sirens behind

Published 8:52 am Wednesday, January 31, 2024

By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer 

PELHAM – Following multiple public inquiries, the Pelham City Council held a discussion and heard comments from Pelham Fire Chief Mike Reid relating to the current state of the city’s outdoor weather sirens during a council work session held on Monday, Jan. 22.

During the session, it was reiterated and clarified that Pelham’s weather sirens have officially been retired in favor of newer and more reliable alert systems for public safety and have been out of service for multiple years.

“It is a question that comes up from time to time because the sirens are (still) up,” Pelham City Manager Gretchen DiFante said. “They’re not working and they’re not operational for a reason. It’s a strategy that Shelby County has moved away from because of new technologies and improved technologies.”

Although the systems have long been out of regular use for the city, and several of the sirens are still in place and visible to the public, Pelham and its fire department began phasing out its outdoor siren system beginning in 2014. According to Reid, it was a decision made primarily out of an acknowledgment that the system was not only outdated, but prohibitively expensive to upgrade and would have required more than $1 million dollars to adequately maintain.

“The sirens at that time were moving to a polygon system,” Reid said. “Our sirens were not set up for that (system). So, there would have been an additional expense (in updating the system). Plus, we had sirens that were going out, because they had either gone bad, been struck by lightning and whatever the case. By 2018, they were all out of service.”

In 2018, the city of Pelham joined most of Shelby County and officially moved to an outright policy of surplussing the sirens and related equipment for other municipalities and organizations, primarily Jefferson County, that request the equipment to maintain their own systems.

“We are following the doctrine of Shelby County,” Reid said. “There are only three existing weather sirens in Shelby County that the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) is maintaining. All the other cities around us are doing just exactly like we are, trying to surplus (the sirens) to anybody that will take them for parts.”

However, the reasoning that led to the retirement of the alert sirens was not due entirely to budgetary concerns but also fell on questions related to their general effectiveness.

As Reid emphasized, the average range and effectiveness of the traditional weather siren, which falls at roughly one-and-a-half miles, can be greatly reduced even further in heavily forested and hilly areas. For most of Shelby County, and especially in Pelham, this shortcoming had always left many without a reliable, or even audible, means of awareness during emergency situations.

To replace the systems, Shelby County and especially Pelham have now embraced the usage of cell phone and weather radio technologies that carry the ability of bringing emergency alerts straight to each individual rather than relying on outdoor sirens. Instead of relying on one siren to alert multiple neighborhoods, each household now has an average of four or five means of alert communication.

“All of our meteorologists are pushing, every chance they get, not to rely on outdoor sirens because you can’t hear them when you’re inside,” Reid said. “We’re really trying to focus or get our citizens to embrace that technology versus the outdated weather siren technology.”

With such systems, alerts can be sent in either en-masse messaging for broad scale emergencies such as tornados, or in specified cases such as natural-gas leaks or hazmat events.

“The Everbridge system is really a robust system,” Reid said. “We had a hazmat incident with one of our chlorine tanks at one of our pump stations—it was leaking. It’s been four years ago now, we were able to use the Everbridge system (to ensure everyone was informed and safe).”

In that capability, emergency services also favor the turn toward cell-phone and radio alerts over that of the sirens, because in all cases the sirens lack the ability to broadcast context.

“(During that event) if we would have set off outdoor warning sirens, people wouldn’t have known what that was for because it was a blue sky day,” Reid said. “So that system—the Everbridge system—we have is very effective.”

Although finalized plans to bring down the out of service sirens have not been put into place, the discussion during the Council’s work session did provide an opportunity to prevent any misinformation toward what systems are currently in use for public safety.

“The only thing we’ve been a little negligent on is we need to take (the sirens) down,” said Pelham Mayor Gary Waters. “If somebody sees a siren they just assume it works. We need to go about taking them down so that we don’t continue having that confusion.”