If you live in the Center Grove area, at least a dozen emergency sirens are set up to warn you of a tornado or severe thunderstorms, but the question emergency workers are concerned with is whether you will actually hear them go off.
Spread out throughout Johnson County — mostly in heavily populated areas — are 40 warning sirens that can be turned on to alert residents of situations such as an approaching tornado or severe thunderstorms. The decision to activate the sirens comes from the county’s emergency dispatchers, who rely on information from the National Weather Service.
Local emergency officials say the sirens are key to alerting people who are outdoors to danger approaching them.
But they also are concerned about how many people don’t hear them when they go off — either because the closest siren is miles away or because it isn’t working.
A Leadership Johnson County group set out to create a map of all the siren locations this summer, which residents can now access online to see whether their home is covered by one of the county’s 40 sirens.
The group’s initial concern with tracking the siren’s was to look for populated areas in need of siren coverage, but the bigger issue they found was not having efficient ways to determine if the sirens are working, said Katie Prine, a member of the Amity Fire Protection Board and part of the volunteer group.
Rural areas do need storm sirens, but the more urgent concern is making sure officials can easily verify that the ones already in place are working, she said.
Once the signal is given to activate the sirens, not every fire department in Johnson County has the technology installed to monitor if the siren indeed went off. While Johnson County officials are the ones determining when the sirens will be used, it’s up to each local fire department to purchase and maintain the sirens, Johnson County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Sichting said.
For the White River Township Fire Department, officials’ concern is making sure they know if the sirens are working and that people are able to hear them.
Once a week, when sirens across the county are tested at 11 a.m. Friday, the only way the department knows whether the eight sirens it monitors are working is if a resident calls and let’s them know that they didn’t hear the siren like they normally do, Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said.
That’s because the fire department has the ability to send commands to the sirens, but can’t receive information on whether the sirens actually went off, he said.
Firefighters in the area of a siren will check to make sure they hear the one nearest them going off, but they aren’t able to check every siren each time, he said. That’s why the fire department relies on residents to let them know if sirens are working. If a siren gets hit by lightning or has a mechanical failure, the fire department might not know it is broken unless a resident alerts them, Pell said.
“We really want people to call if they don’t hear it at 11 a.m.,” he said. “We don’t want someone to be caught by surprise a storm because a siren wasn’t working.”
Pell said he is looking into the cost of upgrades to the sirens that would allow the fire department to monitor them remotely to determine whether they are working.
Greenwood has already made a fix to that problem, and recently upgraded its 19 sirens to a two-way communication system, which allows them to know whether or not the sirens are functioning properly, spokesperson Chad Tatman said.
But another concern is that the sirens only cover the most heavily populated areas in Johnson County, such as the Center Grove area, Bargersville, Greenwood, Franklin, Whiteland and New Whiteland, Sichting said.
That leaves residents outside of an area covered by a siren — mostly in the more rural, southern portions of the county — needing to pay attention to weather alerts on the TV or radio, she said.
The county relies on local fire departments to purchase the sirens, which can cost more than $10,000 a piece, making it difficult to provide them for more rural areas, Sichting said.
The Amity Fire Department raised money to purchase its first storm siren a couple years ago, and is looking at getting another one, Prine said. The Leadership Johnson County group applied for a grant to purchase another fire siren in Johnson County, but didn’t get the money, Prine said.