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.
"We don't want to disturb people," Griffin said, "but we want to make sure we get the best information we can." He estimated the project's cost at $350,000.
Most local governments dismantled their civil defense sirens in the 1990s after the federal government withdrew funding for them when the Cold War ended. They had alerted the public to emergencies for a century, starting with fire alarms. After World War II, they were named civil defense sirens throughout the United States after Joseph Stalin tested the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb in 1949.
With the threat of nuclear war over, some of the yellow, electrically powered mechanical devices stayed as warning systems in some parts of the country for tornados and other natural disasters. Around Washington today, they are used near the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant to warn of any accidents and by eight tiny firehouses in western Loudoun County to summon volunteers to duty.
The new generation of sirens, according to a study conducted by George Washington University for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, can be used to send live or recorded messages in multiple languages. They're more reliable than the older generation, and they can operate on batteries. They can be tested silently. And they can be activated individually -- after a chemical spill in one neighborhood, for example -- or as a group.
Some officials fear that with so many features, the technology could confuse people in an emergency, even if there was a thorough campaign to educate the public. "It used to be that a siren meant a tornado, and everybody knew that," said Fairfax County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald, who also heads the county's emergency communications efforts. "In this day and age, it's not going to just be, 'We'll notify you if it's a tornado.' It could be a bomb. People might say, 'That's a loud noise -- what does it mean?' "
Officials of other local governments say they are watching the experiment carefully. The District dismantled its 100 civil defense sirens in the early 1990s, but a few remain in the city, including at George Washington University and Bolling Air Force Base.
Just 13,500 residents have signed up for an electronic alert system since its rollout 18 months ago. The city is "open to anything . . . that might help alert our residents of an emergency incident," said Jo'Ellen Countee, spokeswoman for the emergency management department.
"We're really looking forward to seeing the results," said Scott Reilly, assistant chief administrative officer in Montgomery County, which with its large agricultural reserve spans 500 square miles. He said he has concerns, though: "I'm not sure how a siren reaches into buildings or a shopping mall."