ANNAPOLIS – In the 1950s, the rise-and-fall wail of the air-raid siren was the signal to “duck and cover” in case of nuclear attack. Such sirens were universal, supported nationwide by the federal Civil Defense Administration.
Today, decades from the height of the Cold War, most sirens have either gone silent or evolved into modern-day fire bells. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax mail scares, there is a movement in Maryland to give them new voice.
Since the 1980s, when federal funding dried up, Maryland counties have been left to develop public alert systems on their own. Across the state, civil defense sirens have met different fates: some have evolved into fire alarms, some have been replaced by new telephone systems and some have been abandoned entirely.
The state still takes an active interest in emergency management, but the reality is that local governments are the first on the scene and ultimately responsible for their own turf.
“Emergencies in Maryland are managed at the lowest level possible,” said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Quentin Banks. “The county or city is the first responder. The state comes in with its resources to shore up or provide support to the local jurisdiction.”
Statewide, the Emergency Alert System — the new version of the Emergency Broadcast System — works to alert the public to weather hazards and other public emergencies through cooperating television and radio stations.
But that system does little good if people don’t know to tune in to the information, siren proponents say. Sirens used to provide that warning.
“Today’s media is very quick to respond to situations,” said Baltimore Emergency Management Director Richard McKoy. “But if we haven’t got the public’s attention, notifying them is darn near impossible.”
The most effective way to do that — at least where people live close together — is through sirens that can signal the public to go inside and tune in to broadcast emergency instructions, McKoy says.
Harford County Emergency Manager Doug Richmond agrees.
“You’re not going to reach a good cross-section of the population with only (Emergency Alert System),” said Richmond. “You’ll get stuff spread by word of mouth, and that’s where rumors and inaccuracies come in.”
Harford County and Baltimore have the most comprehensive public alarm systems in the state.
Harford, bounded by the double threats of Pennsylvania’s Peachbottom Nuclear Power Station and the mustard gas stores at Aberdeen Proving Ground, gets money from the military and from the power company to maintain separate alarm systems.
In addition, 26 sirens from the federal civil-defense system are operational in the county, Richmond said. All sirens use one uniform signal, a three-minute blast, to advise residents to tune in for emergency information.
“We have put out considerable public information about it,” said Richmond of the alarm system. “We have an annual public information calendar that addresses specifics. There’s also information at the libraries.”
The Baltimore alarms are all holdovers from the federal civil-defense system. McKoy says they’re tested weekly, but unlike in Harford, city residents haven’t been as aggressively educated about what to do when they hear them.
“We want people to know the siren is not threatening and that the moment you hear it it’s not gloom and doom,” McKoy said. “It’s more an alert to know you need to find out what’s going on.”
But rather than pay attention to the siren’s emergency role, McKoy said, “people tend to use (alarm tests) to set their clocks . . . they become a little complacent to what it really means.”
Baltimore has to pay for siren upkeep out of city funds, and is upgrading the system, connected through telephone wires, to a radio-signal controlled system.
Alarm system cost can be “prohibitive,” said Banks. Emergency management officials estimate siren installation can cost up to $50,000.
That’s money most counties would rather put toward other emergency equipment, said Richmond. From a funding standpoint, he says, it’s a “blessing” to have the nuclear and military facilities nearby.
Some counties, like Worcester and St. Mary’s, rely on firehouses to keep up older alarm systems. In these counties, firehouse alarms use one sound pattern to call up firefighters and another to alert the public to tune into the Emergency Alert System.
Alarms aren’t practical for every region. In rural and sparsely populated areas like Western Maryland, a few alarms won’t reach nearly as many people as in more densely populated regions.
Allegany County uses a “route-alerting” system whereby police and firefighters announce emergencies over megaphones while on patrol. Route alerting is also used in parts of St. Mary’s and Worcester counties.
Critics of route-alerting say in the event of an emergency, police and firefighters are probably best used in other ways.
“If we have a real emergency, those police and firefighters need to be tending to the emergency,” said Prince George’s County Emergency Response Director Reginald A. Parks.
Sirens have been abandoned for public emergency warning in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Frederick counties — three of the largest in Maryland. Emergency officials in these counties rely almost completely on the media and the Emergency Alert System to alert and inform residents, although Montgomery County is adding a “reverse 911” system, in which a recorded warning can be sent to large numbers of phones at once.
Parks said Prince George’s would turn to route-alerting only if power outages disrupted the Emergency Alert System.
Parks says he doesn’t think the public is affected by not having an alarm system. But MEMA spokesman Banks says the Sept. 24 tornado that tore up Route 1 has some people giving the system second thoughts.
“After the tornado we have a lot of jurisdictions that are sort of rethinking their strategy,” Banks said, though “we haven’t been approached by the local jurisdictions asking for money to resurrect (siren) systems.”