Cold War Relic to Be Updated
The City Board of Estimates last week approved spending $600,000 to replace the Baltimore City Siren System. Baltimoreans have been familiar with the siren test, blasting forth at 1 p.m. every Monday, since the system was put into place during the early fifties. Such systems were erected across the U.S. as part of the Civil Defense Initiative. The siren, a cold war relic, was created to warn citizens against a military invasion, an unlikely proposition today.
The system is operated via a command center in a downtown municipal building and over telephone lines to one hundred and twelve sirens mounted on government and private buildings. Overseen by Disaster Control, the siren system is operated by the Fire Department and maintained by Bell Atlantic. Its infrastructure is on an antiquated bell and light system, and most of the technicians who understand it are retiring. Often, telephone line workers will accidentally trip the system, as happened last Friday. Replacement parts are becoming scarce, and sirens often remain inoperable. The proposed new system would be radio-operated and have about fifty sirens. The new system would be tested every week.
Currently, siren systems are used in rural areas to warn against tornadoes or fires. In a metropolis, the hazards are much more varied and often localized. No other major northern city still maintains such a system. According to Richard McCoy, the director of Baltimore’s Disaster Control and Civil Defense, the system is currently used as an alerting system for chemical emergencies. However, the siren has not been used since the late seventies. It was not used in last year’s explosion in Wagner’s Point.
McCoy is asking for the $600,000 overhaul to integrate it into Baltimore’s implementation of the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team, a Department of Justice program with a goal to prepare 120 metropolitan cities for biological and chemical terrorism. The strike team would consist of medical, casualty, and crime scene specialists. The DOJ’s National Domestic Preparedness Office does not list such a siren as an essential part of the program.
McCoy also believes it would be worthwhile for a myriad of emergencies. A massive public education program would need to be organized, as very few people know the reason for the whistle, or the identity of the radio or television station they are supposed to turn to (WBAL). Even with the requested funding, no money has been set aside for an education program.