By TIM TALLEY
Associated Press Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The wail of an outdoor siren put Kenneth
Jacobs on notice that danger was approaching before tornadoes
struck near his home in May.
"It was loud," said Jacobs, whose home was undamaged during
two days of twisters. "It made you more on guard for what was
going on."
Sirens have long been used for storm disasters, but now the
Federal Emergency Management Agency is studying whether they can
warn people of biological, chemical or nuclear attack.
Cities including Oklahoma City, Chicago and Dallas have upgraded
their outdoor warning systems with a type of siren that can carry
voice announcements - an idea that officials say took on added
importance in the post-Sept. 11 world.
"You have all kinds of new systems," said Timothy Putprush, a
telecommunications specialist with FEMA. "You originate a message.
You need to get it out to the population."
Thousands of sirens were built across the country during the
Cold War to warn citizens in case of nuclear attack, but the
federal government stopped the program and the sirens fell silent
in many of the nation's largest cities. Other cities put them to
use to warn of tornadoes.
But terrorism warnings emerged as a new use for the sirens after
Sept. 11. The federal government is currently updating the nation's
civil preparedness guide to discuss improved ways of notifying the
public of emergencies, and that includes the use of sirens.
In Oklahoma City, taxpayers agreed to spend $4.5 million several
years ago to upgrade its Cold War-era warning system with 181 new
sirens covering a 622-square-mile area in the city.
The sirens, together with news reports and special radios that
emit a loud alarm in times of weather emergencies, helped prevent
loss of life when tornadoes raked the Oklahoma City area on May 8
and 9. More than 300 homes were destroyed but only one person was
killed, an elderly man who fell and hit his head while taking
shelter.
The sirens can be particularly useful to people who are not
listening to the radio or watching television.
"If you've got a weather radio in your house, it doesn't do
much for you when you're at the ballpark," said Kerry Wagnon,
director of public safety capital projects in Oklahoma City.
Wagnon also said the sirens could be used in the event of a
terrorist attack like the one that killed 168 people in 1995.
Radio and television news reports are the warning method of
choice in many large cities, where old civil defense sirens have
fallen into disrepair.
"When the money dried up, the ability to maintain them, based
on a perception of the threat, went away," said Bob Canfield,
assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness
Department.
Sirens would not be of much use in Los Angeles because the
sprawling urban area does not face the kinds of natural disasters
for which they are most useful, he said.
"They're no good for earthquakes, and tornadoes are not our
thing," Canfield said.
Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesman in New York City's Office of
Emergency Preparedness, says battery-operated radios make more
sense than wailing sirens in his densely populated urban area of
more than 8 million people.
"We just don't think it's a practical system for New York
City," he said.
While not dismissing sirens, officials in Washington are looking
at other options including electronic text messaging and a reverse
911 system that would telephone citizens in an emergency, said
Jo'Ellen Countee of the District of Columbia Emergency Management
Agency.
"A lot of people want sirens - people who are old enough to
remember sirens," Countee said.
Electronic messages might work for people with a cell phone, but
Putprush said visitors at the district's many monuments or on the
National Mall would need an outdoor warning.
"There are thousands and thousands of tourists there at any
time of day," he said. "That would be a great application for
it."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)