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Cities dust off air-raid sirens

It was a big sound in its day -- loud, off-key, and impossible to dance to -- and, with a push from the government, it captured the imagination of a generation.

Then it all but disappeared. Faster than you can say "civil defense," the wail of the outdoor emergency siren, except in a few especially vigilant cities, went nearly silent.

Now, a comeback is under way. Like a rocker, the warning siren -- viewed by some as an ear-piercing relic, by others as a reassuring old friend -- may be blaring again soon in a city near you.

"They're coming back, big time," said Ed Wise, a funeral-home director near Atlanta who sells, restores and repairs sirens as a sideline. "Since 9/11, a lot of cities are revisiting their old systems."

More often than not, Wise said, those visits prove fruitless. Decades of neglect have left the old civil-service sirens mute, rusty, and clogged with spider webs. "A lot of times, they try to crank them up after 40 years and they just catch on fire," he said.

Not all communities abandoned their sirens when the Cold War ended. Baltimore, for one, saw fit to keep them running to warn the public of emergencies. Civil defense or "air-raid" sirens, as they were known, have continued to blare in cities and counties prone to tornadoes, and those with nuclear power and chemical plants.

But in most regions, sirens went the way of public fallout shelters, forgotten about after the Cold War ended and the federal funding to maintain them dried up.

Today, there's a new pool of federal funds for emergency management, and in a country fearful of terrorism, battered by freaky weather, the shrill moan of sirens can be heard again.

Chicago, Dallas, Little Rock, Ark., and Oklahoma City have all installed or upgraded their warning systems, often with high-technology models that can broadcast messages.

Many more places are looking at installing new systems, including Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore, which plans to spend $2 million for , high-tech sirens.

Not everyone is jumping on the siren bandwagon. Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., all have opted instead to put their money into quieter high-tech options, such as a software systemthat can call thousands of telephone numbers at once and provide a warning message.

In Boston, a Fire Department official said yesterday, the system is known as "Backwards 911," which can alert thousands in a residential or commercial area to a potential hazard. The official said there are no local plans to restore the air-raid sirens.

To be sure, there are more sophisticated ways to alert the public than in 1950, when the civil-defense act was passed and sirens were clamped to buildings across the country.

Today, citizens can be warned through television (the emergency alert system), telephones (Reverse 911 and similar software), through e-mail, faxes, pagers and weather radios that turn themselves on.

But amid all that technology, the lowly siren -- shrill, annoying, old-fashioned and misunderstood as it may be -- still has its place, or so some cities have concluded.

"There are a lot of ways to alert the public," said Rich McKoy, Baltimore's emergency-management director. "But there is nothing as quick to get its attention."

While old-fashioned sirens can't specify the threat -- be it a terrorist attack, a chemical spill, a hurricane -- they can be heard, at least by those who are outdoors, and more so in some neighborhoods than others.

On 9/11, warning sirens didn't sound anywhere in the United States. But after the attack, McKoy said he started getting phone calls from residents reporting that sirens in their area didn't work.

While the city has the Reverse 911 system, McKoy says sirens are a needed component in the emergency-preparedness arsenal. Not everyone will be answering the phone or watching TV when a disaster occurs.

"If there's some redundancy, that's desirable," he said. "The new technology is great, but only if you're inside. The siren plops itself right in the middle."

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency mandates siren systems in communities near nuclear-power plants and chemical stockpiles, the agency does not tell other communities what sort of alerting system to use.

"The rest of the country is sort of on their own," said Don Jacks, a FEMA public-affairs officer.

"Warning sirens are useful when you have a singular threat," said Anna Burton, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department. "But for Los Angeles, with so many threats -- firestorms, earthquakes, floods, terrorism -- no one noise will let the public know what to do."

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