Beginning this July, Civil Defense warning sirens in Northern Virginia and the rest of the metropolitan area will be used to warn residents of approaching major local peacetime disasters.

Under the new "Attention Alert" program, a single-pitch siren blare for three to five minutes warns residents to turn on their radios or televisions for instructions in the event of a major local disaster such as a tornado, flash flood, toxic chemical spill or terrorism.

Attention Alert is a locally controlled system, and selected public officials can activate the sirens in their own jurisdictions. Sirens could be sounded either throughout the area or in a single jurisdiction, in the case of a localized emergency. Sounding of the sirens will be coordinated by the local governments and the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency Warning Center in Olney, Md.

Under an arrangement with area broadcast stations, local officials will issue detailed public announcements to radio stations WMAL, WRC and WTOP. Those stations will pass the announcements on the other stations for broadcast.

The new program was developed by the Disaster and Emergency Preparedness Committee of the Council of Governments. After the tornado that struck parts of Fairfax County in 1973, tropical storm Agnes in 1972 and Eloise in 1975, officials became concerned about getting information and instructions about peacetime disasters to the general public immediately.

The primary purpose of the Civil Defense warning system is still to warn residents to take cover immediately in the event of a national disaster. If such a disaster arose, the Civil Defense sirens would blare in all jurisdictions at the same time. They make a wailing, or rising-and-falling sound, for three to five minutes.

The Attention Alert system "really isn't going to cost anything because (it) is being piggybacked onto the federal Civil Defense System," according to Thomas Rametta, emergency operations planning officer for the Council of Governments. There are currently about 350 Civil Defense sirens in the area, Rametta said, and the system is being expanded to about 525. Federal funds are being used to expand the system, Rametta said.

Fairfax County Supervisor Warren I. Cikins, chairman of COG's Public Safety Policy Committee, and William M. Calnan, Civil Defense and Emergency Planning Coordinator of Montgomery County and chairman of the COG Disaster and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said they are convinced the plan will greatly increase the ability of local officials to warn the public quickly of emergency situations and reach citizens with instructions soon enough to prevent loss of life and property.