FRANKFORT — Kentucky emergency management officials have sounded an early warning about a bill intended to standardize how emergency sirens are used across the state.
Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Don Gilliam said House Bill 93 has the potential to create onerous training requirements for emergency responders and unaffordable standards for counties' emergency siren systems.
The bill has yet to be passed out of committee and many of the specifics of how it might be implemented have not been worked out, but Gilliam said state EM officials want people to know about the potential problems.
"It may be a little bit premature to raise up in arms over this, but at the same time, we want our representatives to know that we are concerned," he said. "There's a lot of counties affected by this, not just Lincoln."
But Shawn Crowe, a geoprocessing specialist and former meteorologist who helped bring the bill into existence by voicing concerns about improper use of sirens to his representative, Kim King of Harrodsburg, said the bill isn't intended to cause problems; it's intended to prevent counties from using their sirens incorrectly.
"Basically, we're trying to do away with false alarms," he said. "A lot of states already have this on the books but Kentucky's just lagging behind as usual."
The bill proposes a variety of new rules concerning emergency siren systems in the state. It would:
• allow counties to sound their emergency siren systems for weather events only when the National Weather Service has issued a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning for the county in question;
• require all emergency siren systems to sound "continually while emergency conditions persist;"
• require the state Division of Emergency Management to train "all persons involved in the activation" of a siren and conduct "evaluations" every two years to "ensure that the outdoor warning siren systems are used properly and are functional;" and
• require local emergency management agencies like the one in Lincoln County to submit annual reports documenting every time sirens were sounded and for what reason.
Crowe said emergency siren systems are currently used in different ways all across the state, which causes confusion instead of awareness.
In Franklin County last year, there were two incidents where the emergency sirens were sounded even though there were no severe weather events threatening the county, he said.
"What happened was someone down in the holler said, 'I think I saw a funnel cloud' and then the fire chief said, 'well turn the sirens on,'" Crowe said. "Every local government basically does what they want to with them."
But Gilliam said if the requirement that sirens sound "continually" for the duration of a severe weather event means sounding without silencing, that isn't something he thinks Lincoln's — or any county's — siren system is currently capable of doing.
"The only mode of operation I've ever heard of is that the siren sounds for three minutes. Then, they'll silence it and let it recharge for five minutes before they sound it again," Gilliam said. "… I'm not sure the people who are talking about (passing this bill) know how these sirens operate."
Gilliam said Lincoln's sirens operate off of battery packs that are recharged from hardwired electricity. The batteries mean the sirens can sound at least once even if the power is out.
If sirens exist that are capable of sounding indefinitely without stopping, Gilliam said they would likely be extremely expensive.
Because House Bill 93 doesn't require counties to maintain siren systems in the first place, it could be that some counties opt to get rid of their systems entirely if they can't afford to upgrade, he said.
"If this piece of legislation goes through, it's going to create … a financial hardship that we've not budgeted for," he said.