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Cellphone alerts may replace tornado sirens

A tornado touches down April 29, 1984, in Waukesha County. Wisconsin’s aging system of tornado sirens could be replaced by cellphone warnings to save money. (AP file photo by Carston Buehler)

MADISON (AP) — Tornado sirens around the state one day could be replaced by cellphone warnings, a technology that’s cheaper and potentially more reliable.

Cellphone alerts already are being used, but only in conjunction with tornado sirens. Emergency officials in several counties say there’s value to having multiple warning systems, as sirens can be costly to maintain and repair and they’re not always audible to people indoors.

“The new technology works well,” Matthew Marmor, Calumet County’s director of emergency management, told The (Appleton) Post-Crescent. “I tend to see a drift that way, to the newer technologies and away from the sirens just because of the cost and expense.”

Cellphone alerts, which technically are called wireless emergency alerts, were rolled out nationwide last year. The system broadcasts three types of warnings: Alerts for tornadoes and other life-threatening storms; presidential alerts in the case of a national emergency; and Amber Alerts for missing children.

When an alert is sent, the phone displays a short text message accompanied by a special tone different from a user’s standard ring tone. The free alerts get sent to all phones within range of the cellphone towers where a tornado warning has been issued.

“So if you happen to be in Wood County, even if you happen to live in Milwaukee or La Crosse, it doesn’t really matter,” said Tod Pritchard, a spokesman for Wisconsin Emergency Management. “If you’re in Wood County, in Wisconsin Rapids or wherever, it’s going to go off, letting you know there is an alert.”

The alerts don’t work on older cellphones. Residents can contact their wireless providers to see whether their phones work with the new system.

The new system would replace an aging system that dates to the Cold War era. But the sirens don’t always work. During a series of severe storms in April 2011, at least 12 sirens failed, the newspaper said.

Sirens also can be expensive to buy and maintain. For example, Brown County emergency officials say the county budgets $10,000 a year for maintenance. New sirens can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $120,000.

“It’s a couple thousand dollars here, a couple thousand dollars there, plus getting a person out to fix it,” Marmor said. “It’s like getting a leak, perhaps in your gas tank. While it’s not all that much, it’s one more issue.”

Other officials said the sirens aren’t always audible throughout the city.

Amanda Bartz, the clerk/treasurer of Tomahawk in Lincoln County, said city leaders haven’t bothered to operate the sirens in more than a decade, in part because the only residents who could hear them lived in the central part of the city.

She also said residents don’t need a siren to know a storm is coming.

“With the new technology (the warning message) is out there anyways,” Bartz said. “It’s on the radio.”

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