The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

May 12, 2013

Technology available to improve local warning system

BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
Commercial-News

DANVILLE — For the longest time, weather sirens have been as much a part of severe storms in Vermilion County as thunder and lightning.

Continuing advances in communications technology, however, could eventually silence the sirens.

Currently, 40 weather sirens are set up throughout Vermilion County to warn residents of impending severe weather. But a number of variables have interrupted the sirens’ signal to residents.

“They were refitted for weather warnings but now there’s probably not five percent of the population that hears an outdoor weather siren when we set them off,” said Ted Fisher, director of the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody’s inside, their houses are well insulated. It’s an inside society.”

The sirens are owned by the individual cities and villages in the county. The county’s EMA makes the decision on when to set them off.

Many of the sirens are going on 35-40 years in age and, on average, a new siren can cost as much as $20,000. For that same amount, Fisher estimates he could move on to new technology and operate a text alert system in Vermilion County for up to eight months.

According to Fisher, the county is moving into the next generation of notification setups sooner rather than later with plans to ramp up use of its current Nixle system.

Both the county and the City of Danville set up accounts through Nixle LLC, a company specializing in notifications on a variety of levels for organizations throughout the country.

“There are all types of emergency notification,” Fisher said. “Companies are jumping on the bandwagon, running all kinds of different prices, usually 5 cents per text on up. Or you can buy your own in-house system, but that costs a lot of money.”

Nixle — which Fisher said has become popular — originally was brought in by Danville police and the county EMA in June 2009. The system set up by Nixle allows officials to issue text or e-mail messages ranging from weather alerts and missing children reports to warnings about possible traffic congestion because of accidents or construction.

Neither Nixle account has been used to a great extent since that time, with Fisher noting the county only received a little more than 300 sign-ups for its notifications.

Now, Fisher said the county wants to become more active in using the Nixle account and look at expanding the capabilities in the future.

That expansion would include sending out location-specific notifications for residents, allowing residents in Ridge Farm to not receive messages regarding storms passing through Rankin or Hoopeston and vice versa.

The system, once enhanced, might also be able circumvent the problem of getting word out to those who do not have a computer or cellular phone. Notifications of severe weather could also be sent to land line phones in which the warning is read over the phone.