Sedgwick County to upgrade tornado sirens

Sedgwick County plans to spend $1.24 million to upgrade its tornado sirens. The change will allow the county to sound location-specific warnings in the future.

Sedgwick County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved upgrading the outdoor warning devices, some of which were installed in the early 1950s.

Many of the 153 sirens are operated with World War II technology, Randy Duncan, the Sedgwick County Emergency Management director, told commissioners. When some of the sirens break down, parts no long manufactured are hard to replace.

One reason for the urgency in upgrades is a January 2013 deadline the Federal Communications Commissions has imposed on narrow broadband broadcasting. The broadcasting would affect the signals issued in emergency warnings and essentially make Sedgwick County's outdated system ineffective.

"If we do nothing, we will be out of the outdoor warning business on January 1, 2013," Duncan said, "because we will no longer be able to broadcast."

An upgrade in the system would allow the warning system to be more location specific and allow signals to be sent even in conditions where the electricity has failed.

"We have only one choice now — activate the entire system or not," Duncan said. "We have no ability to make a choice other than those two options."

The project is estimated to cost $1.24 million, of which $857,300 already has been approved by commissioners in their 2009 Capital Improvement Projects budget.

Funding resources for the additional $400,000 are still being researched but one possible solution could be grant money, Duncan said.

Due to the large number of federal disasters over the past few years, Kansas has $2 million available to its 105 counties to upgrade their outdoor warning systems. Sedgwick County might qualify for a portion of that funding.

"We understand financial constraints and that we must be prudent with taxpayer resources," Duncan said.

The project would be phased in through several years.