Lubbock among the most populated cities in the 16-state tornado alley that does not have an outdoor siren system, a 2014 citizens advisory committee reported. That’s likely to change under next year’s city budget.
Jay Leeson has advocated for an outdoor warning system for years. He was on that 2014 committee that suggested Lubbock invest in one.
“If I recall correctly in the Lubbock City charter, it says that the city shall provide for protection of life and property,” Leeson said. “This is just a basic life and property issue.”
This week’s budget work session resulted in a proposal for a little more than $980,000 for emergency sirens. It would be paid with cash, not a bond as previously suggested, and first-year funding includes compensation for a technician to maintain it.
The cost is way down compared to past estimates. Councilman Steve Massengale recalled a price tag of more than $10 million at one point. What changed?
“It’s an improvement in technology,” City Manager Jarrett Atkinson said during a Monday meeting. “The only direct wiring that goes into these systems today is the electricity to power it. It’s just so much better than it has been.”
Atkinson said the setup Lubbock is considering would include 39 sirens. These would be installed only in established parts of the city. More can be added as Lubbock continues to sprawl.
The system would be activated after a National Weather Service warning is issued or if a trained weather spotter deemed it necessary. Atkinson said it could be used in other emergencies, such as a hazardous waste spill.
“These are designed to get attention and say ‘Hey, something is happening. Now go find out what’s happening,’” Atkinson said.
If a siren sounds, people should go to an insulated space indoors and seek additional emergency information.
Fire Chief Shaun Fogerson said the sirens would be another tool for communication. They work best in tandem with the LBK Alert text system, weather radios, social media and other traditional methods of communication.
“It’s a star in the constellation of all alert devices we have,” Fogerson said.
Atkinson added that it’s an alert system accessible for everyone.
“When the sirens are triggered, that’s instant for every single one of them that goes off. It’s fast,” Atkinson said. “That’s what you’re not going to get from the common mass notification systems.”
Leeson made the same argument. He said some folks have asked him, through his continual push for this safety feature, why it’s necessary in 2020.
“That assumes a lot about what a person is required to own in order to have their life and property protected,” Leeson said. “A smart phone, certainly, in lower socio-economic minority neighborhoods, you’re not going to find one in every residence like you might on the south end of Lubbock.”
It’s also a fail-safe if cell phone towers are downed, Leeson said.
Having multiple messaging modes proved invaluable when an F-5 tornado devastated Lubbock 50 years ago. Sirens failed then, a point often brought up during debate over the outdoor system. Leeson said that alert system was installed in the 1940s and wasn’t meant to warn against tornadoes.
“The technological evolution of the sirens has evolved at the same pace as the old rotary phone to a smart phone,” Leeson said.
Joe Moudy with the City of Lubbock’s Emergency Management Department said if the system was used strictly for tornado warnings, we wouldn’t hear it often.
“I did some research with the National Weather Service,” Moudy said. “Twelve times since 2014 they have estimated that we’ve received wind gusts over 80 miles an hour. During that time zero tornado warnings were issued for the City of Lubbock.”
If the budget is approved in September, Atkinson said he hopes the system will be active by the spring – in time for tornado season.