Crow Wing County Board: The sounds of sirens
When severe weather is approaching, the wail of emergency sirens is one of the ways people are warned of potential danger.
But thousands of Crow Wing County residents do not live within earshot of one of these sirens, including the populous area between Baxter and Nisswa known as Unorganized Territory.
John Bowen, Crow Wing County emergency management director, said the installation and maintenance of emergency sirens is up to the governments of each jurisdiction. Bowen presented on the matter to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday at its committee of the whole meeting.
A map Bowen presented shows large geographical swaths of the county are not within range of sirens, which are typically designed to reach a radius of just over a mile or up to 4 miles in favorable conditions. The sirens, of which there are 43 in the county, are mostly concentrated in cities. Thirteen sirens cover the cities of Brainerd and Baxter. The next largest area covered by sirens is that including and surrounding Crosslake, where 12 sirens are located in the vicinity. Others are scattered in the cities of Breezy Point, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Jenkins, Crosby, Ironton, Emily and Garrison. Ideal Township has two sirens—one of which is nearing completion of its installation—and another is located on Platte Lake near the border with Morrison County.
Bowen said the locations and distribution of sirens in the county is a result of the individual decisionmaking by local governments. Some date back to the Cold War era and others installed in the 1960s and '70s remain operational, Bowen said. Others were installed recently, including three in Nisswa and those in the Breezy Point area. Because the county board acts as the township board for Unorganized Territory, also known as the First Assessment District, commissioners are charged with deciding whether to locate sirens in that area.
The sirens are sounded at the request of county dispatchers, who receive notification of severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service. They run between three and four minutes and may be sounded more than once, depending on factors such as the severity of the storm.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who represents a large portion of Unorganized Territory, asked the issue be examined further after receiving feedback from constituents.
Bowen said what he hears from residents is they want more sirens, not fewer.
"People want more sirens in their communities, from Unorganized Territory to other townships," Bowen said. "We hear, 'When are we going to have a siren?'"
The average cost for the equipment needed for a siren is $12,000, Bowen said. Including a pole to elevate the siren and installation, costs run from $15,000 to $20,000 per siren. Although cities and townships are responsible for the costs, Bowen said the county works with vendors to determine the best locations for sirens in an effort to avoid costs associated with relocating the sirens at a later date.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked Bowen with the proliferation of cellphone notifications for severe weather, whether he thought sirens were also needed.
Bowen said sirens are one of the tools for warning residents of dangerous storms, but are not the only method of notification. He said the sirens are not intended to be heard indoors, nor do they communicate any details.
"The intent originally was to put them into larger populated areas," Bowen said. "They warn people to come indoors to seek shelter and then get more information."
For some of the commissioners, the recent tornado south of Deerwood was one of the first times they received alerts through their cellphones. The warnings accompanied by a loud tone are sent by service providers as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, also called IPAWS. The warning system is used for severe weather alerts and Amber Alerts for missing children. It also may be implemented for presidential alerts during a national emergency. Warnings for weather or missing persons are optional and may be turned off within device settings, but presidential alerts are required to be issued.
Bowen said his recommendation is for people to own a weather radio, whether they are within siren radiuses or they own cellphones capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts.
Commissioner Paul Koering said no matter what the county board chose to do, the addition of sirens and the use of other warning methods were not a guarantee.
"That doesn't guarantee that they are absolutely going to hear those sirens," Koering said. "If there is bad weather, you need to be alert."
Bowen agreed, noting people should "keep an eye on the sky" when conditions are favorable for severe weather.
Tim Houle, county administrator, said he asked staff to share a financial outlook for the First Assessment District with the board to help inform a decision to install sirens. Funds from the county coffers would not be used on such a project, Houle said, with funding instead drawn from the separate budget maintained for the unorganized area.
Jason Rausch, county finance director, said the unassigned fund balance for the district is $2.4 million, which he described as a large amount. Rausch said the minimum amount he would recommend keeping in the fund would be $775,000—so even with appropriations for some road maintenance, about $1.8 million was expected to remain in the fund at the end of 2016.
"That's $1 million over," Rausch said. "We do have funding."
Commissioners asked Bowen to return to the board with specific recommendations of locations to place emergency sirens. One area he suggested Tuesday was that around Cinosam Road, which is one of the more densely populated areas of Unorganized Territory.
As is always the case at committee of the whole meetings, no action was taken by the board. Commissioner Doug Houge was not present.