Sirens could be used to warn of coming storms

Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal

Construction on seven warning siren towers located throughout the City of Alice and near Ben Bolt was completed last week, and officials hope to have the new warning system operational in the next two months.

In October, the Alice City Council authorized more than $132,000 for the construction of the seven towers, designed to warn residents of emergency situations.

Alice Fire Chief Dean Van Nest said Friday the need for the system became apparent in the summer of 2005, when storm cells created by Hurricane Emily's landfall spawned tornadoes throughout Jim Wells County.

During that incident, a tornado touched down just east of Alice and began traveling to the west. In an attempt to warn the public, officials sounded the only working warning siren in the city, a siren that had not been used in decades.

"We sounded the one working siren at the Central Fire Station," Van Nest said. "What we were trying to do did not sink into the public. It caused a lot of confusion."

The tornado eventually crossed Lake Findley, missing the city by less than a mile, and struck the Tecolote community, causing severe damage to several homes.

In meetings with local officials and emergency responders following the incident, Van Nest concluded that a more extensive outdoor warning system was necessary, with better attempts to educate the public.

That more extensive warning system moved closer to reality with the recently completed construction of six 55-foot towers throughout the City of Alice, and a seventh tower in between Ben Bolt and Green Acres, Van Nest said. Those towers are topped with sirens capable of broadcasting tones that register at 130 decibels 100 feet from the tower, and at 70 decibels 6,000 feet from the tower, Van Nest said.

The warning towers are primarily intended to warn residents outside their homes, and are part of a three-phased plan to cover the city. The other two phases include setting up a Reverse 911 system for the city and ensuring each home in the city has a weather alert radio.

"No system is 100 percent error-proof, or is going to achieve everything you want to do," Van Nest said. "This is only one phase in bringing the community in to being a weather-safe community."

Although the towers do not cover areas outside of Alice or Ben Bolt, such as Tecolote, Van Nest said he hopes to add additional towers to the system in the future.

"One of the key features to this system is that it is radio controlled, so it is easily expanded," Van Nest said. "Eventually, I would like to see one in every population cluster in the county."

Once it is operational, the system will be capable of broadcasting three distinct tones, warning residents to shelter in place. Van Nest said he plans to initiate an extensive educational campaign to inform residents of the meanings of the tones once the system is functional.

Van Nest said he hopes to have the system online by April, before the start of the hurricane season in June.

Although the sirens are only one part of a number of safety measures in the city, Van Nest said he believed they would be effective.

"Is it going to save somebody's life? Possibly," Van Nest said. "It's definitely going to improve our chances."