‘That siren was just a lightning magnet’

Town of Berlin, fire department exploring alternatives to disabled tornado siren

This damaged tornado siren in Berlin is freestanding on the property of Berlin Volunteer Fire Department Station No. 1 along U.S. Highway 278 E. The siren is inoperable due to lightning strikes, and the Berlin Town Council at its last meeting decided not to repair or replace it. (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

BERLIN, Ala. – Heated controversy was sparked after the Berlin Town Council at its last meeting decided not to repair or replace an outdoor tornado siren that sustained lightning damage. With many people expressing concern about the possible lack of forewarning in the event of a tornado, The Tribune spoke with Berlin Mayor Patrick Bates, Berlin Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ralph Laney and Cullman County Emergency Management Agency (CCEMA) Director Phyllis Little to get more insight into the situation.

Little said the siren has been in place for more than 20 years, which is double the estimated life span of the equipment at the time it was purchased. She said the 2011 tornadoes and the 2018 hailstorm in Cullman County caused damage to the siren, though she said that the siren was still maintained by the Cullman County Commission at the time and that “repairs were done following each incident, but they were not extensive.” Other general maintenance and repairs have been done over the years leading up to the complete malfunction of the siren.

“That siren was just a lightning magnet,” said Laney. “I think it’s the oldest siren up in the county, and it’s been struck a couple times.”

The strike that took the siren out of commission happened approximately three to four months ago, when Little said the CCEMA was receiving reports that the siren was not functioning on the days her department performed tests. Bates and the council received estimates that replacing just the speaker would cost roughly $9,000, which did not cover repairs or replacements for other issues; on the other hand, Little was able to provide an estimate of the full repairs, saying, “A lightning strike requires essentially complete replacement. The cost would be approximately $30,000 plus the pole and installation fees.”

When asked about the concerns Tribune readers expressed about not receiving adequate warning in the event of a tornado due to the lack of a siren, Little said that the CCEMA has repeatedly advised residents over the years to always have more than one way to receive weather alerts.

“Outdoor warning systems like tornado sirens were not designed to alert residents inside their homes or wake them up,” she explained. “They were designed to alert people engaged in outdoor activities of an issue that required them to check other sources (e.g., radio, TV, weather radio, etc.) for more specific information, and sirens should NEVER be the primary source for receiving weather alerts.”

The CCEMA recommends NOAA weather radios as the preferred source for weather information, as they are relatively inexpensive (approximately $30-$40 plus the cost of AA batteries), the newer models can be programmed to receive the types of alerts the user would prefer to receive and they don’t lose their programming when the power is out. Little also stated that there are several apps residents can download to keep track of weather wherever they go.

“Most, if not all, TV stations offer their own weather apps for free,” she said. “Bob Baron’s SAF-T-Net is available for free and can be set up to provide the weather alerts that you desire.”

Bates said the council is exploring options to obtain NOAA weather radios for town residents.

“We are currently researching options, including possibly partnering with the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department, for providing weather radios to residents within the siren’s coverage area,” he said.

Chief Laney confirmed the possibility of a partnership between the VFD and the Town of Berlin, saying that the groups were currently exploring ways to receive grants to help purchase the radios for town residents.

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Heather Mann