By Katie Fallon
Who would object to investing $205,000 for an emergency early warning system that might save hundreds of lives if tornadoes or worse should descend on the city?
Just such a proposal by Fire and Rescue Department’s Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Jeff Scarbrough caused a protracted debate at the Oct. 9 City Council work session.
Specifically, Scarbrough asked to city to consider investing the funds in an early warning system that would place a series of sirens atop 100-foot steel poles throughout the city.
The siren system is the kind many communities use to warn residents of impending serious weather in order to allow them to to seek immediate shelter. The sirens transmit at approximately 130 decibels and have a radius of about three and a half miles.
The proposal, which will have to be heard at a regular meeting of the council to gain final approval, was approved by a vote of 3 to 2, but not before the issue caused an acrimonious debate between City Manager John McDonough and a few dissenting members of the council.
In his presentation, Scarbrough said the systems his department has researched typically include three to six different sirens that can be used to signal specific emergencies. The department proposed installing the sirens in two phases.
Phase 1 would include four sites along different Roswell Road regions. Phase 2 would include installation in remaining residential areas as well as eight schools and one fire station.
If approved, the money for the project would come out of the city’s Contingency Fund, which contains several hundred thousand dollars.
McDonough, while noting the dire need for such a system, said staff was just now bringing the matter to the council because they recently learned the city would not be awarded grant funding.
“Unfortunately this year, the money was sent to south Georgia,” McDonough said. “Some communities down there were affected by some bad tornados and the state decided to send the money down there this year.”
Scarbrough said while other emergency warning mechanisms are in place in the area, they are flawed.
Fulton County does employ a reverse-911 system to inform residents of impending emergencies, but it can take several minutes to get to all residents and some may not be reached at all.
“The problem is unlisted numbers and cell phones will not be contacted with that system,”
Similarly, Scarbrough said the with the city’s own “E-Blast,” residents may not be signed up to receive the electronic updates or may not have email.
McDonough made a convincing case for the system.
“When you have a system like that in place, you have an opportunity to make someone aware of something that may devastate their home, their family, their belongings, their pets…whatever it might be,” he said. “People could be sleeping and we could have a tornado that could touch down and if we have the ability to give someone even a minute or so to move from upstairs in their home to their basement, it could potentially save their lives.”
While Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins said she questioned why the council was being asked to act immediately, McDonough said because of the several months it takes to implement the program, the city must act now.
“Not once has this been mentioned,” Jenkins said. “We’ve had no time to study this, to look at it, to determine if it’s a good idea.”
Mayor Eva Galambos was not convinced by the simple nature of the siren warning system.
“It just seems to me that in this day and age of higher technology, that moving sirens don’t seem to me to make use of the highest technology,” she said.
McDonough noted that despite the low-tech nature of the early warning systems, the program uses the most recognizable warning to produce an instantaneous reaction.
“There are other technologies, but the issue is people respond to an audible sound,” he said
Because of the fast moving danger associated with tornadoes in particular, McDonough said the city cannot risk the chance of losing even one life.
“For a couple hundred thousand dollars, I think this is a good insurance policy for our community,” McDonough pleaded. “I would hate to think that we had the opportunity. You can’t put a price on somebody’s life. If a tornado were to hit someone’s home and we had the ability to employ this type of technology at this cost, to give them the opportunity to get down from that bedroom to the basement and save somebody’s life, I would suggest that would be a very good expenditure of public funds.”
Scarbrough said the systems would likely be tested once a month, via both audible and silent methods, and that the city would launch an aggressive educational campaign to inform residents of the system’s purpose.