Special Report: "The Sound of Silence" as Ala. county removes we - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL


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Special Report: "The Sound of Silence" as Ala. county removes weather sirens

Bullock County's weather sirens sit on the floor in a storage building. Bullock County's weather sirens sit on the floor in a storage building.

Tom Ritch decided long ago to never leave home without his cell phone, even if it's just a few steps away from his home in Bullock County. "I'd be out here on a clear day and I could hear the siren over this way going off," said Ritch. 

Another false alarm, another malfunction, one more irritating moment for the volunteer firefighter. "I had people calling me asking 'what's going on?' and I'd have to call the Union Springs police department to find out it was a false alarm," Ritch said. 

It's one of the main reasons why county leaders decided to take down all 18 sirens and store them in a metal building, pole and all. It's the only Alabama county so far to do so. Chilton County is thinking about doing the same thing with its 36 sirens. The cost the county $75,000 a year to maintain. 

Bullock County Commissioner Johnny Adams, who also serves as an unpaid director for the county EMA office, led the charge to take them down. Aside from technical issues, Adams pointed out the financial costs. Adams said the county was spending around $20,000 a year just to maintain them, and that didn't even include repairs that needed to be done, big time money for a poor county. 

"We were at a $40,000 to $50,000 dilemma as to what to do so we had to make a decision,"  Adams explained. 

So today, tornado sirens no longer sprinkle the horizon in Bullock County, but that doesn't mean the county is without protection. 

Adams and the rest of the county governors are pushing residents to sign up for the alert system through Alabama Safe-T-Net on the internet. It's simple to do, free of charge, and you have three options to be alerted; test messaging, cell phone or email. 

"Now email, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're sitting at a computer all day and you may not get it until the next day," said Adams. 

There is, however, one potential problem with just going with the internet alert system. 

Commission Adams recognizes the fact not everyone in Bullock County has a computer or a cell phone. Still, Adams believes going down this route is worth the savings to the county and the risk. 

"The number of people who have cell phones is a lot higher than the number of people who can hear our sirens," Adams. 

Case in point; Bullock County consists of more than 620 square miles, and one tornado siren has a sound range of just one mile. Commission Adams says to truly cover every square inch of Bullock County you would need 200 sirens, no way the county could afford that. 

John Jenkins likes the idea of Alabama Safe-T-Net but says the mere thought of his native county without sirens makes him a little nervous. The sirens were here for decades. 

"We need them. They're very important to have,' Jenkins said. 

State EMA Director Art Faulker expressed concerns about the county taking down the sirens, but Faulkner is also quick to point out he's not about to tell commissioners how to spend their money. 

"I think what you're seeing in Bullock County is the sign of the times," said Faulkner. 

Beyond the Bullock County line, counties like Montgomery, Autauga and Elmore say they have not had any issues with malfunctioning tornado sirens, no plans to take them down. In fact, Elmore County added two tornado sirens in recent months in the Prattville area. 

"There are just too many people who don't have access to social media outlets," said Elmore County EMA Director Eric Jones. 

WSFA 12 meteorologist Rich Thomas echoes what many have always said about tornado sirens; they were meant to be heard outside, not from inside your home. Thomas says you can never go wrong with a $30.00 weather radio or signing up for free weather texts or weather apps. 

"There would be less chance of false alarms with weather radios and the Alabama Safe-T-Net than the sirens," Thomas said. 

Baron Services in Huntsville, Alabama, is the maker of the 'Alabama Safe-T-Net' app. Company officials say Madison County has the most sign-ups, which is not surprising since Madison County encompasses Huntsville. 

Back in Bullock County the county government plans to sell the old sirens to other municipalities. 

Tom Ritch, meantime, enjoys the comfort of a clear day in his front yard, even more comfortable knowing he'll be given a real warning through his phone should the skies turn deadly.

Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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