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.
Gilliam also voiced concerns about what the training requirement portion of the bill might entail.
If training is required for anyone in emergency management who might be involved when sirens need to be sounded, there might be dozens of people in every county who have to be trained, he said.
And if the training is on an annual or recurring basis in another location in the state, that's a whole lot of scheduling and time away from work officials would have deal with, he added.
"If you've got 20 dispatchers and you can't send them all at once, obviously that in itself creates a hardship," he said.
Crowe said the training he envisions the bill requiring is "not anything extensive," essentially just learning to tell the difference between a watch and a warning.
"It's nothing you would have to go to school for," he said. "It wouldn't take more than an hour."
Crowe said initially, House Bill 93 didn't draw much attention, but he's had multiple calls on it recently and King has told him she has lots of people asking about it now, too.
"The citizens seem to be responding to it very positively," he said. "The ones that don't seem to like it are your EM guys because they're construing it as more work … I think they're always reluctant to change no matter what."
Gilliam said even as what to do about warning sirens is debated, he would prefer implementing an entirely different system that can alert residents to dangerous weather via phone, cell phone, email or text.
"My opinion has always been that a reverse 911 system would be more efficient and much more economical — and benefit all those people who aren't outside," he said.
King, who is co-sponsoring the bill with District 82 Representative Regina Bunch of Williamsburg, said this may not be the year House Bill 93 gets passed into law.
"I'm not sure that we can get this passed at this time," she said. "But I think we need to have the conversation."