Bullock Co. in transition on tornado sirens

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

BULLOCK, AL (WSFA) - On this gray February day in Midway Ruth Mack is a little nervous.

"No contact. If you don't know, you don't know," said Mack.

Mack is concerned because this town of a little more than 400 doesn't have a tornado siren. The one it had is broken and beyond repair.

"I'm not mad. Maybe they're doing the best they can," said Mack.

The siren in Midway was blown off its perch 9 months ago and it's been on the ground ever since. What this means is Midway hasn't had a warning system since May and the nearest tornado siren is 7 miles away.

The Bullock County Commission Chairman tells us:

"The original grant was $17,000," said Chairman Ron Smith.

$17,000 in state and federal funds to repair the 10 of the county's 19 sirens, all broken due to the elements of being outdoors and age.

The grant came in before the one in Midway was blown down in a windstorm. County leaders hope to get additional funds to replace the one in Midway but as of now it hasn't been approved.

Chairman Smith concedes a siren on the ground doesn't look good.

"I understand, I understand," he said.

"I'm very disappointed but what keeps me sedated is that I keep being informed there will be a system," said Midway Mayor James Robbins.

But change is in the air in Bullock County.

Bullock County is currently testing what's commonly known as 'reverse 911.

"We think it's a more efficient system. This technology is all computerized. The company's computers in New Jersey are connected to NOAA weather computers so it's almost instant and when NOAA issues a tornado warning, it makes all the phone calls to residents," said Commission Johnny Adams who is also the county's EMA director.

Reverse 911 isn't new. The technology has been around for about 25 years and Adams says the package they're looking at will be free to county residents.

Montgomery County has a reverse 911 as well as Lowndes and Dallas Counties. Elmore and Autauga Counties are looking into it but they say right now it's too expensive.

In fact, less than 15 Alabama counties have reverse 911, according to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. Most Alabama counties have tornado sirens.

"The sirens only cover a one-mile radius. The reverse 911 is complete coverage," said Adams.

But only if all residents with a home phone, cell phone or computer sign up for it.

Still, the potential for complete coverage is why Bullock County is looking at the new system. The yearly administrative fee for the county will be around $3,000, no installation fee, far less than what Adams claims will cost to replace the siren in Midway.

"About $36,000," Adams said.

Henry and Houston Counties use reverse 911, a service provided by Southern Nuclear in Farley.

"It's been a great tool for us," said Henry County EMA Director Paul Brown.

The cost of maintaining the sirens is not cheap.

"I would say on average between $10,000 to $20,000 a year," said Adams.

That's not to say counties like Bullock, Henry and Houston plan to do away with them.

Chairman Smith learned long ago to always have a plan 'B.'

"I'm an old country boy. When papa got a tractor he didn't throw away the mules," Smith said.

Back in Midway the sooner the better for people like Ruth Mack because they believe a siren on the ground is too alarming to ignore.

"Get something that works. At least we'll have a chance," Mack said.

Bullock County leaders are encouraging county residents to sign up for the free reverse 911 service during this testing period. That web address is bullockema.com or they can call the county commission office at 334-738-3883.

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