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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 25 article about sirens as a possible technology to warn Washington area residents of terrorist attacks misstated the number of D.C. residents who have signed up for emergency text alerts. The number is 18,104, not 13,500.

All Ears for a Blast From the Past

Ian Titus and fellow Lovettsville firefighters use a civil defense siren to call in crews. Alexandria and Arlington will be test grounds for new siren use.
Ian Titus and fellow Lovettsville firefighters use a civil defense siren to call in crews. Alexandria and Arlington will be test grounds for new siren use. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Washington region's emergency managers have concluded that the high-tech devices put in place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are not enough to warn masses of people. So they are looking at the system that alerted the World War II and Cold War generations: the piercing wail of a siren.

Arlington County and neighboring Alexandria will become the first communities in the country to experiment with sirens as alerts to terrorist attacks. They are preparing to buy as many as 15 modern sirens to mount on telephone poles, buildings and even traffic lights in a few neighborhoods in a federally funded pilot program that is being closely watched by other area governments.

With their mix of urban canyons, suburban subdivisions, tourists, malls and parks -- and dense populations of daytime workers that make them vulnerable to attack -- Arlington and Alexandria stand out as ideal locations to see whether sirens can reach people that BlackBerrys, cell phones and radio stations cannot.

"People outdoors are most at risk in an attack because they are least able to find out what is going on quickly," said John Fuoto, an engineer and siren expert for the Department of Homeland Security and a consultant to Arlington, which is overseeing the pilot project.

Fuoto said sirens could also be ideal warning systems on the Mall, in downtown Silver Spring and at Tysons Corner -- any place people congregate outside the reach of mass broadcasts over television, radio, telephone or pager.

Terrorism fears have been the driving force behind the free emergency alerts many of the region's local governments are offering to deliver on such portable hand-held devices as cell phones as well as via radio stations, electronic highway signs and reverse-911 telephone service.

But even in a region of techies, many people aren't equipped for the warnings, and relatively few of those who are have signed up for such systems. For example, Fairfax County has just 5,000 subscribers to its text-messaging alert system, officials said.

A new generation of sirens used in San Francisco (for earthquake alerts), on Mount Rainier (for volcano warnings) and now in tsunami-stricken Southeast Asia caught the attention of local officials.

"Everyone's looking at this to see if it will really reach significant numbers of people who are otherwise not reachable," said David Snyder of Falls Church, a member of the Washington region's emergency preparedness council.

Emergency managers stress that sirens, too, are limited because they are designed to reach people outdoors. They are not ideal for suburban counties where people tend to spend more time indoors than out.

"We may say, 'This was a good attempt to fill a void in our public alerting system that may not work,' " said Robert P. Griffin Jr., Arlington's director of emergency management. "Or we may say, 'We've answered a problem for ourselves and the rest of the region.' "

The program will test sirens in several as-yet-unidentified neighborhoods, simulating the response to an explosion or weather catastrophe with a wail followed by a broadcast, Griffin said. There will be ample advance warning of the drill. During the drill, people will be told the nature of the emergency and will be directed to go indoors or prepare to evacuate. Or they'll be told to turn on a radio to find out what to do.


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