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The sound of silence

Swisher's 6 p.m. siren falls silent

SWISHER– Small towns have a reputation as being quiet, and the little community of Swisher, in the northwest corner of Johnson County, is no exception. However, after recent actions by the city council, it’s gotten even quieter.
The council voted unanimously on Sept. 10 to discontinue sounding the town’s outdoor warning siren daily at 6 p.m., a tradition dating back to the 1970s.
The siren, an Alerting Communicators of America (ACA) Banshee-110, motor-driven siren, was donated by the local Jaycees and installed in 1975 on the fire station, now the Swisher Community Library. When the Jefferson-Monroe Township Fire Department moved to a new location east of town, the siren was relocated to its current location, near the corner of Rose Avenue and 2nd Street SW.
When new, it sounded at noon and 6 p.m., as was a common practice in many towns. The siren’s primary role was to warn of tornado threats and was also utilized in alerting the volunteer firefighters in an era before radio pagers, although it was the city’s siren and did not belong to the fire department. Firefighters had “Fire Phones” in their homes, which rang when an alarm was being dispatched. A button on the phone activated the siren, which would then alert firemen who were away from their phones, prompting them to respond to the fire station.
In the early 1980s, the volunteers started to utilize pagers, which could be clipped onto a belt or stuffed into a shirt pocket. At that time, use of the siren for fire calls was discontinued. Gene Beard, a 40-plus year veteran member of the Jefferson-Monroe Township Fire Department (and current deputy chief), said when the new station was built east of town, controls for the siren were not included, and to this day, the firefighters have no control over the siren, which is activated, for severe weather or other impending disaster, by the Johnson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) through the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC). The siren is also activated on the first Wednesday of the month during a countywide siren test conducted by the EMA.
The Iowa Emergency Management Association (IEMA)’s Outdoor Warning Siren Best Practices Recommendation notes warning sirens were initially erected in large cities, during WWII, to warn of incoming enemy bombers. During the Cold War, siren placement was expanded, under Civil Defense, to warn of incoming missiles. With the sirens in place in many communities, they were available to warn of approaching tornadoes and alert fire departments.
The big yellow sirens, and their alerting sounds of impending doom, are now as common as cornfields in the Midwest. However, more and more often, some people would just as soon not hear them until they’re needed.
Councilmember Rebekah Neuendorf brought forward a concern in August regarding children in the playground below the siren being scared when it sounded in the evening. During the Aug. 13 meeting, Neuendorf asked if a sign could be placed in the park, advising patrons of the 6 p.m. sounding. Discussion ended with City Clerk/Finance Officer Tawnia Kakacek being directed to review previous minutes to determine when the noon whistle was discontinued (2003) and what process the council undertook.
The official minutes from the Sept. 10 meeting state, “Council reviewed past minutes showing discussion of removing 6 p.m. siren from years ago. Kakacek noted that JoCo EMA doesn’t need the 6 p.m. siren for testing. Neuendorf noted concern of scaring children at the Downtown Park when the 6 p.m. siren goes off. After discussion, (Jerry) Hightshoe moved, seconded by (James) Rowe, to remove the 6 p.m. siren by Oct. 1, 2018. Call for vote. All ayes unless otherwise noted. Absent: (Mike) Stagg. Motion carried.”
The City of Solon recently discontinued a 5 p.m. siren in an individual subdivision after complaints from residents. Solon continues sounding the downtown siren, located at the Solon Community Center.
The IEMA document cites studies conducted in the wake of deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Moore, Okla. (2011, 2011, 2013) showing an apathy or distrust toward sirens by the general population. The studies “…show that many people don’t trust sirens to be accurate, and therefore they do not take shelter when they hear them. Instead, many begin to call or text friends and family when sirens go off to verify conditions and discuss options before taking any further action. These studies show that overuse of sirens leads people to ignore them. Overuse includes testing them too often. It also includes using outdoor warning sirens for non-warning reasons, such as for lunch sirens, dinner sirens, curfew sirens and fire hall sirens.”
Not everybody in Swisher was pleased with the discontinuance. Beard, speaking as a private citizen and not in his capacity with the fire department, addressed the council during public comments at the monthly meeting on Monday, Oct. 8. Beard expressed his concerns to Kakacek after seeing the minutes of the Sept. 10 meeting, noting the daily sounding assured the city the siren was operational.
“This action (discontinuance) was ill-conceived,” Beard said, noting he and council member Rowe discussed the siren the week of Sept. 29. Rowe, Beard said, stated the daily sounding was unnecessary as the siren is monitored by EMA to ensure readiness. But, Beard cited an article in the Solon Economist quoting Solon’s Public Works Director Scott Kleppe as saying the daily sounding was the only way to be sure the siren was operational. Beard stated he talked with Brandon Siggins, Emergency Communications Coordinator for the JECC, and Siggins said currently there is no system in place to monitor Swisher’s siren.
“It is my experience that there have been numerous times that the siren stopped working due to storm damage, equipment malfunction and human error that was only noticed due to the siren not sounding at its normal time,” Beard said. “I ask that the council reconsider their action, and continue the daily testing of the siren as a public safety matter.”
A provision in the 2003 decision to discontinue the noon siren was it would continue to be sounded in the evening, Beard added, “Because it was good to keep the siren exercised, and make sure that it was working.”
The council had a brief discussion about the siren, however no action could be taken, as it was not an agenda item.
The IEMA document states the local emergency management commission is required to identify a means of alerting people to a warning per Iowa Administrative Code.The code section only requires emergency management to have ways to provide emergency public notification, and does not specifically dictate siren use, or non-use.
Johnson County’s EMA Director Dave Wilson said in addition to the outdoor warning sirens, the county utilizes Reverse 911 and CMAS IPAWS (Commercial Mobile Alert System, also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts or WEA, and Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) alerts for cell phones, landlines and the outdoor public, while the National Weather Service activates weather radios. Wilson added the county owns a dozen sirens scattered throughout the rural areas, while in-town sirens are owned by their respective cities.
“We sound them and set the SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) for when we activate them,” Wilson said.
The sirens possess two basic sounds or tones, “alert” and “attack.”
Alert is a steady tone, used for weather or other life-safety emergencies, while attack is a rising and falling sound. Some fire departments use attack as its alert, despite the National Warning System Operations Manual stating, “The attack signal will have no other meaning and will be used for no other purpose.”
Johnson County EMA follows the recommended best practice of sounding the sirens for the protection of life, which the IEMA document states is the “sole purpose” of an outdoor warning siren.
“Sirens should be used to warn of immediate threats to life and limb. They should not sound when the predominant hazard is for property damage. They also should not be used for any non-life safety purpose such as time-of-day notification (noon siren) for instance. It also notes the sirens are not just tornado sirens, but all-hazard sirens.”
Johnson County EMA follows a Best Practices Recommendation for sounding the sirens based on three violent weather events: tornadoes (NWS warning or trained spotter report), extreme winds (measured or imminent at or above 70 mph and/or reports of whole large trees going down) and large hail (NWS measured or imminent of 1 3/4 inch diameter, golf-ball-size, or larger and/or reports of windows being broken by hail.
EMA also follows the Best Practice Recommendation of a single monthly test. Beard however, feels a daily test is the best practice.
“I’ve got a long memory around this town,” Beard said. “I know that stupid things happen that cause problems, and the last thing you want is for the siren not to go off, like they have in other towns, when they have a true emergency. Tolerating something that goes off for 30 seconds seems a small price to pay for public safety.”