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Kadner: Wailing about new tornado sirens

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FILE PHOTO

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Updated: December 20, 2013 6:25AM



A new emergency alert system that speaks four different languages failed to signal impending danger during Sunday’s tornado warning, according to some Oak Lawn residents.

“I couldn’t hear the tornado siren in my home,” Mickey Depre said. “I’ve lived her for 24 years, near the center of town at 96th and Cicero, and I’ve always heard the sirens go off when there were tornado warnings out. But not on Sunday.”

Oak Lawn installed a new warning system in April, replacing its old system, according to Art Clark, an Oak Lawn police commander in charge of the village’s emergency management agency. The new system sounds a shorter siren, lasting about 30 seconds, followed by appropriate warning messages.

“Like anything that gets old, and our system was 25 to 30 years old, things wear out and need to be replaced,” Clark said. “We also had an area near 111th Street and Central Avenue that was annexed into the village and never served by a siren. So we wanted to address that issue.

“We looked at several different systems in several different suburbs, and we chose this one, which is the same system used on all military bases,” he said.

After the initial siren, a spoken alert is made over the system in English, Spanish, Polish and Arabic, “the four primary languages spoken in our village,” Clark said. “The old technology, with the siren, you didn’t know what was happening. You weren’t sure of the nature of the emergency.

“With this system, we can notify people of the specific problem, such as a chemical spill or tornado, and tell them what safety precautions they should take.”

What about people who contend that they didn’t hear the siren blast its initial warning?

“We have about 22,000 individual buildings in Oak Lawn, they are made out of different materials, some are condos and some are single-family homes, and they are at various distances from the locations of the six sirens in Oak Lawn,” Clark said. “Our village is 8.6 square miles.

“And depending on the location of the person in their home, the distance from a post or rooftop with a siren on it, there’s just no way to assure that every person in every building is going to hear a siren. It can’t be done. But that’s way we have other ways of communicating during an emergency.”

Oak Lawn has an emergency alert system called Everbridge that sends out text messages or telephone calls to people in the village who sign up for it.

“Sadly, we’ve only had about 10 percent of our residents sign up for the program,” Clark said. “People can sign up online. It’s very simple to do. If someone doesn’t know how to use a computer, they can have a family member do it for them.

“In fact, if you’re a child of an older person or have a friend who is disabled in the village, you can have the alerts sent to your cellphone or your computer as well as to the phone or computer of the person living in the village.

“You will be sent an alert whenever one goes out at the same time as the person in the village so you can check on them and make sure they’re aware of it.”

You can sign up for the alerts by typing Oak Lawn Emergency Communications-Everbridge into a search engine on a computer.

But back to those old-fashioned air raid sirens and the new system put in place in Oak Lawn.

I told Clark that my experience with public address announcements, even indoors, is pretty poor.

In airports, hospitals, even business offices, here’s what I hear whenever someone is making an announcement over a PA system:

“Brringoh sacco grrgle THIS IS IMPORTANT to fshhhh skullll IMMEDIATELY.”

Oak Lawn’s system is open air. That means announcements are being tossed into the wind. On Sunday, that was a 40 to 50 mph wind. And some of the stuff being said is in a foreign language.

That doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.

“We are tweaking the system,” Mayor Sandra Bury said. “The siren blast is going to be a little longer and louder. But at this point, replacing the system is not an option. We just don’t have the money.”

Bury said the new system was purchased with a grant of about $120,000 before she took office in April.

“I understand why people may like the old system, but technology changes and every suburb will eventually have to replace its old sirens,” Clark said. “That’s just a fact of life.”

Depre wasn’t buying the explanations.

“I know we used to hear the sirens, and I’m not the only resident who has complained,” she said. “As for the spoken announcements, if you can’t hear them in your home, what good is the technology?

“Are you supposed to go outside to hear a warning that there’s a chemical spill so you must stay indoors? That makes no sense. It’s stupid.”

Oak Lawn also offers a program for residents to obtain coupons for NOAA Weather Radios at Walgreens stores. These radios broadcast continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The radio sounds a siren if there’s a weather warning in your area to wake people up if they’re sleep, Clark said, “and most people who die during tornados die because they’re asleep at the time and unaware of the weather event.”

With the coupon available at Oak Lawn Village Hall, the $39 radios can be purchased for $20, Clark said.

I believe all the new technology is good.

But lots of people today are listening to iPods as they mow the lawn or jog, children play video games, some folks actually turn their cellphones off occasionally.

A really loud air raid siren is still a universal signal to take cover. If the sky is clear, I think most folks would realize they ought to turn on a radio or make a phone call to find out if something other than a weather emergency is taking place.



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