Is Reverse-911 the Most Effective Warning System for Massachusetts?

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Emergency management officials are perplexed over how to best warn Massachusetts residents about the danger of incoming tornadoes. If you live in the Berkshire area of Massachusetts, you were most likely stunned and scared by the recent slew of tornadoes hitting the area. The disasters have alerted Massachusetts emergency officials to re-examine their emergency warning systems.

Most of the warning sirens were disabled in the 1950's and 1960's, except for a few towns who still utilize them.

Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski reported that a siren repair project is currently underway and is nearing completion. The new and refurbished system will be active within a few months. In the past the sirens had to be activated manually, but with the newest iterations, radio signals from the police station can activate them.

According to Czerwinski, an education campaign is in the works to educate residents as to the presence of the sirens. "They'll cover most of the city," Czerwinski said.

Even though the new siren project will help to alert more people as to the danger of approaching tornadoes, public safety officials acknowledged that there is not an ideal notification system currently in place. In North Adams, sirens are not utilized anymore according to the county's public safety commissioner, E. John Morocco. He noted that the city now uses a reverse-911 system.

This reverse 911 system notifies all residents who participate about traffic problems, street closings, or even criminal activity. Though the system is available for weather warnings, according to Edward McCormick, emergency management director for Alford, Egremont and Sheffield, no audible countywide tornado warning system exists.

McCormick believes the reverse-911 system is the most effective but he worries that it will be used for less than serious situations and when a real emergency strikes people won't listen. "If you cry wolf too often, no one will pay attention," he said.

While the debate between sirens and reverse-911 continues, Harry Jennings, Fire Chief of Great Barrington says that the cost to cover 44 square miles with sirens would be expensive. He stated that the Alert Now reverse-911 system is presently used by the town up to six times yearly for "emergency and important messages".

Emergency Management Director Hubert "Ted" White believes sirens would be the best prevention method but he knows they would be too expensive to implement correctly.

"We've used reverse-911 for severe snowstorms and other emergencies like a major water-main break, but we don't want to use it to let everyone know there's a bake sale at Town Hall," White said.

Concerns over whether reverse-911 calls would take too long to implement in the time of a rapidly moving tornado is also an issue. However, many of the officials agree reverse-911 would be the most effective if used correctly. Emergency management teams are expected to meet shortly to discuss the best methods to alert the public of imminent weather threats.