Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=222741
Story Retrieval Date: 9/18/2014 12:40:43 AM CST

Top Stories
Features
SIREN

Mackenzie Allen/MEDILL

An empty Grant Park before Chicago's annual Blues Festival is reminiscent of last year's Lollapalooza when a severe storm forced the evacuation of thousands.


Warning sirens a familiar sound, but some unsure how to respond

by Mackenzie Allen
June 06, 2013


SIREN2

Mackenzie Allen/MEDILL

The Grant Park South garage is just one of the many evacuation sites within the city of Chicago.

Related Links

Emergency Warning SystemNotify Chicago

Responding to an emergency

Chicago residents Harold Dorsey and Courtney Smith were both right on how to respond in an emergency. The website Alert Chicago recommends several steps to protect yourself including taking shelter inside away from windows. If possible, turn on a television or a radio to learn the type of emergency, get instructions on how to respond and stay up to date on any changes. Once the situation has passed, the city will issue an all clear alert through local news agencies.
Like clockwork, on the first Tuesday of every month the city of Chicago runs a test of its emergency warning system – and while many recognize the sound of the sirens, not everyone knows what to do if they were activated in an actual emergency.

“I think people would know that these alarms are emergency alarms. I’m not sure they would know anything more than that and if they heard them just briefly, they would just think they were just testing them, no matter what day it was,” said longtime Chicago resident Harold Dorsey.

“If they went off for a period of time that was unusual, that I felt was unusual, I would probably check, I guess, the television,” Dorsey said. “But I wouldn’t be certain that that’s what I was supposed to be doing.”

While the test lasts only 30 seconds, in an emergency the sirens will be active for three minutes.

The monthly tests serve two purposes, verifying that the sirens are operating correctly and familiarizing residents with the system.

Courtney Smith works at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in the Loop and said that the tests coincide with her morning meetings. If there is an emergency while she is at work, she has been told to stay away from windows and get behind inner walls.

Bill Matens, Chicago security analyst and former FBI bomb technician, said that the once-a-month testing is “more than adequate” and that most commercial buildings only test their systems once or twice a year.

The emergency warning system is an all-hazards alert composed of 112 sirens, mounted on poles one to two miles apart. It is used to warn residents of “a major emergency or disaster, including a severe storm, tornado warning (not a tornado watch), earthquake, chemical hazard/hazardous material incident, extreme winds, biological hazard or event,” according to the Alert Chicago website. The system can be activated by single siren, by area or city-wide.

In addition to the siren system the city operates an email and text-alert system, Notify Chicago.

The government regulates mass digital communication, so unlike the emergency sirens, residents need to register for updates through Notify Chicago.

One of the advantages of Notify Chicago is its ability to provide continuous updates during an emergency.

Updates that likely would have been helpful for the thousands of concertgoers at last year’s Lollapalooza forced to evacuate during a bout of severe weather.

In that situation, the Chicago Police Department, the Office of Emergency Management and Communication and event organizers worked together to get individuals to one of three evacuation sites, the Grant Park North Garage, the Grant Park South Garage and East Monroe Street Garage, until the storm had passed.

“The Lollapalooza evacuation was the first time that officials have had to temporarily evacuate this music festival, but city of Chicago officials have temporarily evacuated other large-scale events before, including the annual Air and Water Show in 2011,” said Therese Kordelewski, OEMC public relations coordinator.

Kordelewski said that the Lollapalooza evacuation took about 40 minutes.

There isn’t a one-size fits all plan for evacuating a location, said Matens, but he cautioned against allowing panic to develop in an evacuation or any emergency situation.

“Not every place needs to be treated like a nuclear facility,” said Matens. “Chicago is way in front of a lot of major cities.”