About 30 people came to hear a presentation on emergency warning sirens at the Aug. 1 regular meeting night of the Van Buren Township Public Safety Committee.
VBT has no warning sirens, but is surrounded by communities that do: Canton to the north, Romulus to the east, Washtenaw County to the west and Sumpter Township to the south. Huron Township, to the southeast, has four and is on the way to having two more.
For years, people in VBT have been asking township officials to get sirens, to no avail. After the tornado in Dexter, VBT residents again started asking their elected representatives for emergency sirens.
Recently, after a presentation on the Code Red system, the township board turned over to the Public Safety Committee the task of looking into warning systems.
Before his departure, Fire Chief Darwin Loyer said he had been in contact with Jeff DuPilka of West Shore Services in Allendale, MI, and Loyer recommended the committee invite DuPilka in to give a public presentation.
Public Safety Committee chairwoman Diane Madigan followed through and invited DuPilka to give an informational presentation on warning sirens. DuPilka took her up on her offer.
Also in attendance at the Aug. 1 meeting was Kenneth Laird, Logistics Manager of Wayne County Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Director Tim McGillavary of the county’s Homeland Security, sent word that is he committed to helping VBT move forward however possible.
DuPilka, president/sales, of West Shore gave an enthusiastic presentation on emergency sirens, inviting those present to interrupt him at any time to ask questions. And, there were lots of questions.
His company has been working with sirens since 1979 and it does most of the work in the state of Michigan. His sirens are the type certified by FEMA.
He stressed that sirens are an emergency tool to be used “not instead of” but in addition to other emergency programs for a community.
“Code Red has a package you can buy for an annual fee,” DuPilka said, referring to the program favored by VBT Supervisor Paul White.
“Every piece has a down side,” DuPilka said, referring to the different kinds of warning systems. “But, blow a siren and you know something is happening,” he said, which leads people to go to another source to see why the siren blew.
He said the sirens went off 20 minutes before a tornado hit Joplin, MO in 2011, giving people time to decide what to do.
DuPilka said Code Red alerts came in 10 minutes after the Joplin tornado because of overloads in the communication networks.
He emphasized that you can’t count on just one thing.
DuPilka said if a siren system is installed, the township must commit itself to a community education program, so that people will know what the warning sound means and whether or not there will be an all-clear sound and what that will sound like.
He said the fire department does fire prevention programs in the schools and it will need to teach the children the siren rules. DuPilka said the children will learn what the siren means and will tell the adults.
He said Homeland Security has grants for education.
He said there are four different types of sirens: those that rotate three rotations a minute (used in Michigan); 360-degree omnidirectional sirens; motor-driven sirens, used since the ‘50s; electronic sirens; and electronic sirens with the ability to talk over the sirens, using computer chips.
There are special problems with sirens that give messages, especially if they are rotating, he said.
Sirens are erected on 50-foot poles, wood or concrete, with 8½ feet of that underground, leaving them 45 feet tall.
The life of a system is 45 years, so it is a big investment for a community, he said.
DuPilka described the different kinds of sirens used by nearby communities. He said he just completed work on 54 solar-powered sirens for Belle Isle and along the Detroit waterfront, with 53 on concrete poles. He added that solar panels have to be big in this area and are very expensive.
VBT Downtown Development Director chairman Jere Dolph asked how many sirens Dearborn has and DuPilka said it had 19 sirens.
DuPilka said a normal township uses 12 to 16 sirens, adding it depends on where the roads are because the site needs to be off a road for accessibility. Usually, they are located on municipal land or right of way. He said attempts to site them on school property has not been successful.
He said where there is a lot of outside activities or a lot of population, that’s where the sirens should be put first.
Or, he said, some communities want to put them everywhere to cover the whole township.
When Larry Fix asked the cost, DuPilka said the ones with wooden poles are $19,900 each, installed, and the concrete poles are $23,000. He said concrete is more aesthetic.
John Delaney asked if a siren couldn’t be put on the water tower and DuPilka said there are problems with access and with the siren being too high, sending the sound out of the township.
He said the old thinking was to put it on the fire station, since that was where the button would be pushed. But now, he said, the siren is activated by radio and they put it by the population, usually in the road right of way. There also are problems with trying to use cell towers.
DuPilka said the Federal Signal 2001-130 Siren, which is the most popular siren used in Michigan, sounds 1 mile from the center, which means it alerts those for 4 square miles, with the corners cut off.
DuPilka took a compass and drew one-mile circles on a large map of VBT at places he proposed might be good for siren sites, with some overlapping to provide coverage.
Laird of Homeland Security said, “If other communities provide coverage for you, at the edges, you provide for them. We’d like to see the whole county move as a piece.”
Laird said Wayne County does not recommend anything to the communities and it’s up to each individual community.
He said Wayne County did a major program five to six years ago, but some did not participate.
“It’s up to you to decide,” Laird said. “Our stance is that we give you assistance for you to do for your residents.”
DuPilka said that 50% of the work they do in the state has grant money involved.
“You have a DDA,” DuPilka said, adding he’s on a DDA board in his community and he knows they “don’t just print money.”
In the tri-community, DuPilka said Sumpter Township has eight sirens now and is getting two more. Belleville has one old siren, he said.
In drawing his circles for the possible siren sites, he stated, “I’ll go around the airport.” He will check to see if Willow Run has its own system.
DuPilka said the cost of sirens also includes $415 per year, per site for a maintenance agreement, with the battery backup replaced at year four as part of the agreement.
“We rarely make a service call on this system,” DuPilka said. “It has minimal maintenance.”
DuPilka said his company doesn’t advertise anywhere and depends on word-of-mouth references.
“You have to include the Metropark,” said Supervisor White. “There’s a lot of people out there.”
There was some discussion about Huron Township’s new sirens, with the understanding that there was one or more in a Metropark. That will be checked on, too.
White said if a person is inside his home with the air conditioner on, he couldn’t hear a siren.
DuPilka stressed that sirens are supplemental to other systems. He said Romulus has a completely covered community, with 14 sirens.
Many of the sirens for nearby communities were paid for with grants, but presently there are no grants.
“If the siren committee is activated again, we could have more funds,” Laird said.
DuPilka ended up with 12 circles for VBT, overlapping into Belleville, Canton, Sumpter Township, Huron Township, and Romulus.
“This clearly is a 12-siren community, unless some other community overlaps yours,” DuPilka said. “If anything, I’m being conservative.”
Delaney did the math and declared the whole system would cost about $238,000.
DuPilka said the community could prioritize and put the sirens in as money becomes available.
White, who regularly speaks against sirens in favor of Code Red and NOAA weather radios, said people become desensitized because sirens are blowing all the time.
DuPilka said that is the responsibility of the people pushing the button to keep siren sounding to a minimum. He said some communities never blow their sirens for testing or anything else, only for emergencies.
“I think it’s better to err on the side of caution,” DuPilka said of siren sounding.
Fire Chief Dan Besson cited Michigan State University research into motivation and what people do when they hear sirens. This is to help communities, he said.
DuPilka said he serves on the fire department in his community and he knows with that, as with his work with sirens, “Someday, something I’ve done will save somebody’s life.”
That is a powerful motivator, he said.
He said sirens don’t care about how big your house is or how much money you have. “Sirens work the same for everyone.”
DuPilka said it costs about $18 per month, per site, for electrical power. Once the sirens are up, that’s about it, except for maintenance and power. He said Code Red costs about $18,000 to $20,000 per year.
White said Code Red quoted from $12,500 to $19,000 a year and noted the additional costs for the sirens for power, adding to his argument against sirens.
DuPilka said in Dexter, two sirens went off 15 minutes before the tornado hit, which gave time for people to make lots of decisions, such as putting off that trip to the store.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Madigan had drawn areas on the VBT map that showed where the DDA area and the Community Development Block Grant areas were located, possible sources of funding for sirens.
After the meeting DDA chairman Dolph told DuPilka that the DDA might be interested in three for its area.
Fire Chief Besson provided informational materials which showed there were 29 tornados in Wayne County from 1950 through 2011, with none in 2011. Besson is expected to take the lead in seeking grant money through Wayne County or federal grants.