The tornado that touched down Feb. 3 on Fort Stewart and caused damage has sparked concern among residents in neighboring Hinesville about the lack of a siren warning there.
Bryan County Emergency Management Chief Freddy Howell wrote in an email to the Bryan County News that to his knowledge, Bryan County and Pembroke have not had warning sirens in his three years in his post. Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler said in an interview that the city does not have any sirens.
Fowler said he had not heard any concerns from residents about tornadoes after the Fort Stewart incident.
Howell said that in his opinion and according to studies by experts, “outdoor warning devices are not the most effective method” these days.
Reasons Howell cited included the limited area the sirens can cover, but also the cost and the use of modern technology. Trying to purchase enough outdoor sirens to effectively cover a 455-mile county would be costly, he wrote. As an example of siren cost, SafetyCom.com shows several sirens for sale ranging from $6,590 per equipment unit to $20,985.
Another concern with depending on sirens, Howell wrote, is that people wouldn’t be able to hear them if they are watching TV, listening to the radio or out of the siren’s audible range.
Howell said the most-used technology for weather warnings consists of televisions, cellphone alerts and weather radios. Various websites show that weather radios generally cost less than $100.
He added that the county has a free text-alert warning system. People can text “Bryan County EMA” to 40404 on a cellphone. Those who get a NOAA weather radio and need help setting it up may contact the county EMA, he added.
Fowler said an alert system is a concern of the city’s, with an eye toward using apps to issue warnings.
Neighboring Chatham County has taken a different approach, relying on technology but also installing 62 sirens throughout the county in recent years, according to Meredith Ley, the Chatham Emergency Management Agency’s public information officer.
CEMA had upgraded its system so that the only sirens activated are in the path of the storm, instead of the entire system.
The software upgrade cost $16,500 and came from an emergency management program grant, Ley said.
“And what it does is it activates sirens within a polygon,” Ley said. “So this weather system is able to track what the most dangerous part in a storm is, draw a line around it, and be able to forecast which direction it’s going and then, as the storm moves, the sirens within that polygon also activate as the storm moves.”
The sirens are geared toward individuals who are outside and away from weather radios, televisions or cellphones, especially in areas where people gather, such as schools and parks, Ley said, and are not meant for those who are inside their homes.
CEMA emphasizes personal responsibility when it comes to being warned about the weather.
“Having a NOAA weather radio is absolutely crucial for those times where you might turn off your technology and you might be a really hard sleeper,” Ley said. “But a NOAA weather radio next to your bed is probably going to wake you up and let you know that something’s going on.”
CEMA also relies heavily on using social media to get the word out instantly that an emergency is happening in the area, Ley said.
Using a reverse 911 system to call the more than 275,000 people in the county simultaneously during an emergency would overload the system, according to Ley, so the agency focuses on sending Twitter alerts.
During the Feb. 3 tornado, Ley said she was live tweeting what was happening and followers who receive mobile tweet notifications have them sent as text messages to their phone.
Even with a variety of notification methods used, sirens are still an important part of Chatham’s warning system.
“We will probably always have our siren system,” she said. “If I could speak to the siren system now, it’s absolutely critical to our notification process. And I don’t see that going anywhere anytime soon, because we are focused so much on the places that people may not have their phones.”
People need to be aware of severe weather, Ley said, because even though CEMA has a team that monitors the weather 24/7, it is still unpredictable.
“And tornadoes can pop up out of nowhere,” she said. “And I think (Feb. 3) was a good representation of just how unpredictable weather can be. But again, the preparedness part is a big piece. We knew that the conditions were right, so being aware all day long was key for us, I believe.”
According to a post on richmondhill-ga.gov, HomeOwnersInsurance.com named Richmond Hill the 12th-safest city in Georgia in 2015 in terms of being affected by severe weather among cities with 10,000 or more residents.
The website had the city’s tornado score — which includes incidences of actual tornadoes and funnel clouds — at 26.85 on a scale of zero (the best) to 50 (the worst), based on storm-event information from 1965 to October 2014 in the NOAA Storm Events Database.