Lack of sirens surprises some

Posted Friday, May. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information CodeRED Information To sign up: go to the city’s website at www.mansfield-tx.gov and enter your cell phone and land-line numbers, physical address and e-mail addresses. Warnings: choose any combination of alerts for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash flooding.

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In Mansfield, where many believe the fiery debate over warning sirens has been over for years, the issue piped up again after the severe weather that lashed the area and spawned destructive tornadoes in Granbury and Cleburne on May 15.

“I think it’s ridiculous that we don’t have sirens,” said Stacy VanCurin, a lifelong Mansfield resident whose home in the old center of the city was darkened by a power outage during a thunderstorm. She had to rely on her cell phone and its remaining battery charge to monitor the weather. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Like many residents, she was unaware of a personalized weather alert service provided by the city, called CodeRED. City officials consider it a worthy option to sirens – one they want more residents use.

About 9,640 residents in the city of almost 60,000 have signed up with their phone numbers, which CodeRED automatically dials en masse when it picks up warnings from the National Weather Service.

City officials said CodeRED performed smoothly during the severe storms of May 15, despite several complaints lodged by residents who said the alerts they were supposed to get arrived late or not at all.

In each case, people who reported that they never received calls from CodeRED weren’t supposed to be notified. They weren’t in the direct path of a thunderstorm that formed over the city and moved northeastward into Grand Prairie, said Assistant Fire Chief Roy McCleary, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

Many residents don’t realize how geographically specific that CodeRED – a service that several area cities also subscribe to -- can be with its warnings, he said.

“I think it worked like it should have,” McCleary said.

But several others who called the city said their alerts came late – after the storm arrived or passed. Those aren’t as easy to explain, said Stephanie Meyers, marketing manager for CodeRED at its headquarters in Ormond Beach, Fla.

She said speed depends partly on the capacity of a city’s phone system, but also on the cellular call volume in the area, which can become overloaded with weather-related calling.

“All that will slow down the calls,” Meyers said. But she added that sometimes people think the call was late when actually it was timely but not answered, in which case CodeRED leaves a message.

Either way, Meyers said, subscribers should report such incidents to the CodeRED headquarters, at (866) 939-0911.

“We really want to know about it so we can look in the database and troubleshoot with them. Every single time there’s a logical explanation,” she said. “This technology saves lives. We want to make sure it’s working for everybody.”

The debate over sirens peaked after a tornado ripped through Mansfield in May 2001, damaging 100 homes and businesses but causing no serious injuries. The City Council ultimately decided that sirens are too costly and ineffective, since many people can’t hear them indoors.

And there are unintended consequences.

“When sirens go off, like in Arlington, the first thing they get is people calling 911 to ask why the sirens are going off,” said Mansfield Fire Chief Barry Bondurant. “It overloads the dispatch and communication center, which ties up lines for people that are calling in with medical or police emergencies.”

Sirens again were considered in 2007 at the request of then-Mayor Barton Scott, who campaigned on it when he ran for office. Quotes sought by the city staff put the price of fitting the entire city with sirens at between $270,000 and $430,000. The matter was dropped again.

Meyers said 46 counties and more than 300 cities in Texas subscribe to CodeRED. Mansfield joined in October 2005, before the service offered automatic weather alerts.

Instead, Mansfield and other cities used the targeted, mass-dialing feature – and still do – to notify all or sections of their populations about a variety of public matters. Those can include alerts about drinking water contamination, utility outages, evacuation notices, missing persons, a bomb threat, hazardous chemical spills or gas leaks.

Mansfield has used it to notify neighborhoods where crews would be spraying for mosquitoes.

Virtually everyone with a phone land line in Mansfield – 13,319 households and 288 businesses – is in the city’s CodeRED database to receive those kinds of alerts, said McCleary, the city emergency coordinator.

The city added the automatic weather-warning feature in early 2008, but people who want to use that have to sign up for it on the city’s website at www.mansfield-tx.gov. They can list their cell or land line contact numbers and choose whether they want to be notified of warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms or flash flooding, or any combination thereof. (People who don’t live near a creek might not want a 2 a.m. call about potential flash flooding, officials point out.)

The city is paying $12,000 annually for the full CodeRED service.

“CodeRED works,” said Beverley Hazen, who lives in the Meadow Glen neighborhood in east Mansfield.

She said she appreciates not only the storm warnings but the non-weather alerts as well, noting that the city recently alerted residents in her area that its Fourth of July fireworks contractor would be setting off 10 fireworks at the Big League Dreams sports complex as part of a test.

“We wouldn’t have freaked out about fireworks anyway,” Haven said. “But it was nice to know.”

Her family took advantage of the news, she said, by settling into the back yard to enjoy the brief show.

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641 Twitter: @Kaddmann

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