LETTER: City warning system clarified
To the Editor:
For those people raised during the 1950s, 60s and into the 70s, a community siren may have had several interpretations, some of which were confusing and varied with each community.
The standard Civil Defense notification of an impending enemy air attack was a three- to five-minute wailing tone. If no such attack materialized, a single up-and-down tone signaled "all clear."
In addition, until pagers replaced sirens on community volunteer fire stations, one form of siren tone meant a fire within the city or village and another tone meant a rural fire.
Also, until November of 1981 there was no 911 Emergency phone number in St. Croix County. Up until that time communities had a five- or seven-digit phone number to call a phone operator and she was authorized to activate a siren.
With the coming of the 21st Century things have changed, especially following the 9/11 wake-up call. But, along with change, old habits, procedures and beliefs must also change.
Today's alert warning system in the City of New Richmond includes, but is not limited to, high decibel sirens with overlapping coverage, as well as AM and FM radio, weather channel TV, cable TV over-ride, and the very important individual home alert monitors of the Radio Shack variety which can be purchased for about the same price as three large pizzas and should be installed in every household. A more expensive device is the C-WARN monitor, which is in place in all schools, hospitals and institutions as well as several homes.
Essentially, when sounded, the municipal warning sirens (not to be referred to as "tornado sirens") have three functions or potential messages:
1) A notice of severe weather. Not just tornadoes, but also the possibility of straight line winds, some of which reach speeds of 100 miles per hour and can be several miles wide as well as severe rain-with-wind combinations as well as lightning strikes that may occur several miles from the actual storm front. Sirens can also be activated within each municipality should the need arise. This is also why when a siren sounds within a community due to severe weather, trained spotters are sent to pre-designated areas to attempt to spot the phenomena.
2) Toxic chemical or hazardous material (HAZ-MAT) spills. In the event of a spill or leak of toxic chemical from a derailed tank car or tank truck on a highway in St. Croix County, the on-scene emergency services incident commander would contact the St. Croix County Communications Center advising them of the type of product involved, the toxicity, wind direction, and, if necessary, the area to be evacuated. The dispatch center will notify the emergency management duty officer in Madison as well as the National Weather Bureau in Chanhassen (Minn.) who will broadcast verbal messages over individual alert monitors following activation of a siren or sirens in a specific area.
3) Counter-Terrorist Information. In the event of a terrorist related activity in St. Croix County or an adjacent area such as the Twin Cities that may affect the safety of the population, Homeland Security links would advise the various sheriff's departments and county dispatch centers in the surrounding area. Again, with the sounding of sirens, the procedure for the general public would be as described in the first two situations.
Overall, families should keep the following points in mind:
Municipal sirens are tested at 11 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month, winter or summer (unless there exists a storm or tornado "watch" at that time).
A three-minute steady tone is the only tone that is programmed into the siren.
The siren is not just a "tornado siren" but has three potential functions: Severe weather, toxic spill, and counter terrorist activity information
The siren is designed to alert people who are out of doors to "Get-in and tune-in and not necessarily to wake a sound sleeper (although it does a pretty good job of doing so).
The 911-dispatch center is not an "Information Booth." When a warning siren is sounded, do not call 9-1-1. You will only tie up the emergency phone lines, and the dispatchers can only advise you of severe weather, toxic spill or terrorist activities and tell you to tune in (WIXK AM until sundown, WCCO AM or FM day or night, Cable TV over-ride, Weather Channel TV, and individual alert monitors which, after emitting a loud tone, will give verbal information as to the emergency at hand). If you want to call family or friends, fine, but do not call 911.
At the end of a weather related warning period, there will be no "all clear" tone sounded (this would be a liability issue for the city).
As of 1 April 2013, the U.S. Weather Bureau in Chanhassen, Minn. has developed a better system of tracking potential tornado activity in the western Wisconsin counties.
Potential areas that might be affected by either violent storms or tornados have been narrowed so that it will not be necessary to sound all county sirens when a super-cell enters the county. St. Croix County, therefore, has been divided into four quadrants with the north-south dividing line being County Road "T" and the east-west dividing line being County Road "E."
Municipalities in the lower left or southwest quadrant of the county will be referred to as being in Alert Quadrant 1, the top left or northwest quadrant will be Quadrant 2. Quadrant 3 will be the top right or northeast quadrant with the lower right or southeast quadrant referred to as Alert Quadrant 4.
Information fed into the St. Croix County Communications Center, for example, might indicate a violent storm front approaching the northern portion of Pierce County with a portion of it affecting the villages of Woodville, Wilson and Spring Valley while the sun is shining in Star Prairie, New Richmond and Deer Park.
Sirens would then be activated in Quadrant 4 only. There will be occasions, however, when sirens in two or three quadrants may have to be activated or possibly all four. Monthly county siren tests, for example, would necessitate utilizing all 25 county sirens as would Homeland Security Information.
Overall, there should be a reduction in the number of times sirens would sound in New Richmond, Star Prairie, Somerset and surrounding townships.
Emergency government director
City of New Richmond