TAMPA — The Port of Tampa will upgrade its siren warning system, which alerts port workers and residents when something goes really wrong with the handling of hazardous materials that are stored on port land, transported by sea or carried across city streets on railroad cars.
People had trouble understanding those warnings when the sirens blared three times this summer: A slow-moving train derailed with 4,500 gallons of flammable ethanol on July 25, and two fires erupted in a sulfur storage tank in August, releasing a toxic cloud.
So the Tampa Port Authority's governing board decided Tuesday to spend $616,000 to improve the siren warning system and control stations.
The new sirens will be louder, clearer and have a greater range than the old ones. They'll blare and broadcast the old pre-recorded warnings telling people to stay inside or flee the area.
But officials also will be able to use the new system to broadcast live instructions, so they can explain exactly what people should do during another emergency.
"I know that after the last sulfur incident, there was a lot of concern in the community about the siren system," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the port board. "I think this will go a long way to improving that."
Murman said it was also good to see emergency officials from the port, city and county working together to better inform residents about the siren system. That will include a public education campaign that will start when the new sirens are installed, so that people will actually know what they should do when the new sirens activate.
Emergency officials at Tuesday's board meeting said residents have become too used to the old warning sirens erupting, because they are tested frequently.
The project must be done by the end of July 2014 or the port will lose the $425,000 federal grant that will help pay for it. The port is putting up the other $191,000.
The port awarded the $616,000 contract to Flores & Harper Construction Inc. of Temple Terrace. But Flores will team up with a national company, Federal Signal Corp., because the local company has no experience installing siren warning systems, according to the port.
The port stores and ships plenty of petroleum products. But another concern is the release of anhydrous ammonia, a colorless gas used as fertilizer. Small doses can cause irritation, while high levels of exposure can be fatal.
Upgraded control stations to activate the new sirens also will be installed at these port facilities: CF Industries, Kinder-Morgan, Yara North America and the Tampa Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.