Sirens of spring

St. Charles County Regional Emergency Management keeps the public notified of severe weather and other emergencies with the help of a system of warning sirens

By Brett Auten

Come spring, beauty abounds.

The bright green grass, the multitude of flowers, even the sun and sky have more of a pop to them.

But spring also brings with it nasty – and sometimes catastrophic – weather and that’s where St. Charles County Regional Emergency Management does its best work. When severe weather strikes, the Emergency Management staff is hunkered down at the county’s Emergency Operations Center keeping a watchful eye on the storm long before it hits.  

The Emergency Operations Center (which is a hive equipped to monitor and communicate with emergency response agencies on their frequencies and amateur radio section provides communications with volunteer weather spotters) coordinates with the cities within St. Charles County, as well as neighboring jurisdictions and state and federal agencies during emergency activations. Emergency Management works with the National Weather Service to know when and where tornadoes are most likely to appear. If one is seen, the outdoor warning sirens are activated to alert the public to take shelter.
 
There are 139 warning sirens across the county; 72 of them are located in unincorporated areas and are maintained by the county. The remaining 67 sirens are purchased and maintained by municipalities. All the sirens are tested regularly and are activated by Emergency Management during severe weather and events, like most recently, levee breaches or other emergencies. The warning system can be activated in four ways to ensure safety: over the police radio system, via telephone, with an encoder device at the EOC, or by pushing a button on a device in the Emergency Communications department.

“I would rather sound (the sirens) and be safe than not sound them and something tragic happens,” Captain Chris Hunt, the Director of St. Charles County Regional Emergency Management, said. “It is a fine line you walk and you have to be sure you have some legit reasons and there is potential for danger.”
 
Because the sirens are electronic devices exposed to weather, they can malfunction, as it happened in O’Fallon in March. A warning signal went off around 4 a.m. and wasn’t shut off for over 30 minutes. If a siren is out of service for any length of time, like the one in O’Fallon, a portable siren is taken to that area.

“The motherboard was shipped back to the vendor,” Hunt said. “Glitches happen.”

Because outdoor warning sirens are only meant to be heard outside, Emergency Management encourages citizens to have a weather radio or other sources for weather alerts and other emergencies.

“We get a lot of complaints about not hearing it,” Hunt said. “But, if they are inside the house, or if it is raining and windy, you may not hear it. Even though we have the area completely covered, it shouldn’t be the sole thing you rely on.”

Emergency management means many things, including: monitoring weather to provide early detection and warning, planning, funding and maintaining public warning systems, helping residents, business owners and communities learn about and prepare for disasters and joint planning and training with neighboring local, state and federal agencies. The flooding in early May put the team into overdrive.

“Our staff worked endlessly to get people the services they needed,” Hunt said.

Monitoring weather and satellite data, to provide warnings and information to the public is an important function. But the work doesn’t start when disaster strikes, it is happening every day. The Emergency Management team (which has completed training in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) among others) promotes unified planning and coordination of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery before a disaster. 

And on the flip side, recovering from a disaster requires skills, knowledge, and equipment from a wide range of agencies and organizations. This is where the Interagency Command Center steps in. The Emergency Management team also maintains and deploys St. Charles County’s Interagency Command Center. At the request of any public safety agency in the county, this mobile command center can bring computer, communication, weather monitoring, as well as other capabilities to emergency responders at the location of their choice, providing a much more efficient public safety response with critical resources in one place.

In early 2019, the idea of a regional team came to life when the cities of Wentzville and O’Fallon joined St. Charles County. Now, there are seven full-time and one part-time employees for the team and a bevy of services at the disposal of all the residents.

“From generators, to boats, to sandbag building machines, they have access to all assets,” Hunt said.

For more information, Hunt asks that you visit and like the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/StCharlesCountyREM.

CUTLINE: Photos courtesy St. Charles County 

Cover-Siren1 Inside the Emergency Operations Center is a hive equipped to monitor and communicate with emergency response agencies on their frequencies and amateur radio section provides communications with volunteer weather spotters.

Cover-Siren2 Warning sirens like this one are spread throughout St. Charles County. There are 139 warning sirens in total across the county.