Targeted Tornado Warnings Coming for Jefferson County as Part of Siren Maintenance Plan

Alabama tornado map (Source: NWS)

Jefferson County and the cities therein will benefit from some nifty shopping when it comes to maintenance of weather sirens.

Weeks ago, Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Coker estimated it would cost $400 annually to maintain each of the 254 sirens in the county. Some sound shopping and deft negotiating yielded a cost that was much lower than that estimate, one that also will provide residents with better targeted warnings.

“We are now able to afford the polygon warning system and still save $53 per siren,” Coker told commissioners at their Tuesday committee meeting. “The previous round of maintenance that the County Commission funded to get many of these sirens working was completed by a company out of Michigan. I’m very proud to say we have selected a contractor who is located here in Birmingham. We’re doing business with someone local now.”

As recently as 2014, 50 percent of the sirens in Jefferson County were not working. Commissioners hired a company to repair sirens, and that work has been done the past two years.

“Now the county has a new contract for routine annual maintenance and to repair any sirens that break,” Coker said. That cost is shared by the county and municipalities with the county paying for sirens in unincorporated parts of the county.

Additionally, the county committed to paying $100,000 to repair sirens that break. As maintenance gets better, the cost of repairs should go down, Coker said.

“If you change the oil in your car, your engine doesn’t seize up,” the EMA director said. “If you do the routine maintenance, it will continue to operate, and sirens are like your car.”

The polygon warning system is patterned after the one used by the National Weather Service. This system means a weather threat in the northern part of the county, for example, won’t sound sirens in the southern part of the county.

Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Coker (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The sirens are just part of the county’s warning system. Another part is Everbridge, a countywide mass notification system that uses text messaging and calls to cell phones and home phones.

Coker said that, according to data from the National Weather Service, Jefferson County is the most tornado-prone county in the state. From 1950 to 2017, Jefferson County had 98 tornadoes; Baldwin County was second with 91.

“We’re No. 1 and we don’t like it,” Coker said. “We want people to have multiple ways to have warnings. Our bottom line is if they get a warning, through Everbridge or sirens, there is an immediate threat, so you need to take immediate action because your life may depend on it.”


Dilapidated Buildings

In another matter, commissioners talked about potentially forming a landbank authority, not unlike the one formed by the City of Birmingham. That authority would help the county address abandoned homes and dilapidated buildings.

“We want to be able to tear down dilapidated houses and to have resolutions and ordinances in place to help clean up these blighted areas that have been long neglected,” Commission President Jimmie Stephens said. “It’s past time to get that done.”

Stephens said the commission is likely within three months of having a plan in place to implement in the next fiscal year.

Also Tuesday, Commissioners agreed to vacate a right of way on Powder Plant Road in the Bessemer area. A nondisclosure agreement barred commissioners from providing details of what may be coming to that property.

“It has the potential to be good news,” Stephens said. “Right now, we’re trying to make sure that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed in case we have the opportunity to bring some much needed development to the western part of Jefferson County.”

The county’s Development Services Department received recognition from the National Association of Counties for its work coordinating volunteers for community cleanups. Director Zhaleh McCullers cited the efforts of staffers Lyn DiClemente and Hana Berres, as well as the contributions of other departments, including the Sheriff’s Department, the county attorney’s office and Roads and Transportation.