KCTV5 Investigates Silent Sirens - KCTV5 News

KCTV5 Investigates Silent Sirens

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No warning sirens sounded when a tornado unexpectedly touched down the night of Feb. 28 in Harveyville, KS. It came too quickly to activate any warning sirens.

"No one was even aware of it," Harveyville resident Gemma Collins told KCTV5. "All we heard was lightning and then thunder and that just didn't stop. And then it turned to growling."

Wabaunsee County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Amy Terrapin revealed the next morning that extra time would have made no difference because the sirens are broken.

"They are older and need to be replaced, simply put," Terrapin said.

"So none (were) working last night?" KCTV5 Investigative Reporter Eric Chaloux.

"Correct," Terrapin replied.

Wabaunsee County is not unique. Using Sunshine Laws in Kansas and Missouri, KCTV5 obtained three years of siren testing, inspection, and repair reports from communities in 22 counties on both sides of the state line.

When it comes to tornado sirens in the two states, there are no state regulations.

Siren tests and maintenance are left up to the community that owns the devices. Some larger cities in the Kansas City metro check sirens daily. The thousands of pages of documents obtained by KCTV5 showed that others go months without knowing whether or not their sirens will sound.

For example, one inspection sheet from Gardner, KS, recorded a siren without power at Lakeshore and Lake Road 9. No one can say how long it had been that way because the device hadn't been serviced for at least nine years.

In Ray County, MO, a service company wrote the city of Richmond to advise that the batteries for one siren hadn't been replaced in nearly 10 years. That is three times beyond industry standards.

And during a statewide drill in Lee's Summit, MO, nearly a third of that city's sirens failed to sound.

The Central Jackson County Fire Protection District oversees Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Lake Tapawingo.

"So, we've got sirens almost everywhere," Assistant Chief Eddie Saffell said.

When Saffell conducts a tornado siren test on the first Wednesday of every month, he must physically dispatch police officers, firefighters and public works crews to each siren to listen for trouble.

"So all the sirens are monitored by somebody. Then once the cycles are done we call into our dispatchers (and) they check off the sheets," Saffell said.

But department logs show major gaps in that monitoring policy with blank boxes on page after page. That means no crew was there to listen and file a report.

"Last year, there were only six sirens in Blue Springs that were heard every time you tested them. Six out of 18 sirens, you had someone there every time," Chaloux said.

"That could be," Saffell replied. "When we sent them to you, I didn't look at that. I can't imagine that there are too many that we haven't heard at least once. You know, to where we've missed a number of months in a row for the same one."

KCTV5 did look at those records and uncovered one alarming situation after another. The siren in Blue Spring's Keystone Park went 14 months without being heard during the monthly tests.

Documentation for the siren at Pink Hill Park showed 11 months of blanks before someone put a mark that the device did not work. In 2010, all but one box was left blank, meaning someone had monitored the siren only one time out of 12 tests.

And for siren 5 in Grain Valley, which sits next to a couple of schools on Pink Hill Road, testing logs showed no one had monitored it for 11 months in a row. When someone finally was available to listen, the siren failed to sound and had to be repaired. Four more months went by before a report was filled out. Once again, the records reflect a failure.

"What do you want people to take away when they see that those sirens didn't have somebody there making sure they were working?" Chaloux asked.

"You know, I don't have an answer for that. We send somebody out to the sirens as much as we can," Saffell said.

Contrast the Central Jackson County system with the set up Emergency Management Director Bob Miller has in Belton. His city upgraded to a computerized siren system several years ago. The testing of his city's 17 storm sirens can be done with just the click of a mouse.

"At least once a week, maybe twice a week I'll walk in here and what's it gonna' take me, a couple two or three minutes here to run a check on it?" Miller explained.

No on-site monitoring is required in Belton. If there is a problem, Miller can immediately see the issue and send out a repair crew to the bad siren. No problems were detected during the most recent statewide tornado drill.

"They all came back on the screen green again," Miller said. "So that means every one is functional. They're ready for the next call."

But those computer monitored systems come with a big price tag. Central Jackson County estimates the upgrade would cost about $400,000.

Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.)  All rights reserved.

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