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Old siren may join emergency arsenal

(ran PW, PS editions of PASCO TIMES)

Six years ago, one of the scariest things around here was the thought that phosphorus at the old Stauffer Chemical plant might catch fire.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. There was no fire. No clouds of noxious smoke drifted toward town.

Unfortunately, the world as a whole has gotten a lot scarier since then.

So now city officials want to use some of the emergency equipment put in place at Stauffer in the mid 1990s to keep residents informed about floods, storms, other natural disasters _ and worse.

"My concern is we're living in a different era than when Stauffer was a concern," Tarpon Springs fire Chief Kevin Bowman said last week.

As a result, city officials have been exploring the idea of using a low-power radio transmitter and a siren on a tall pole at Stauffer to bolster their emergency notification network.

The city already has a reverse 911 system that officials can use to send out recorded telephone calls. It's a good system for small emergencies. For example, officials recently got it ready to send out calls in one part of town about a lost boy, but he came home just before the calls began.

But the city learned in March that the reverse 911 system has its limits. That's when a huge water main break meant that residents countywide had to boil their water.

City officials heard about the boil-water order later than they would have preferred. What's more, they only have nine reverse 911 lines for outgoing calls. Dialing all 9,500 telephones in town with a 30-second message would take 30 to 40 hours.

"If you get 30 hours out, and if you're the last person contacted, it's real old news," Bowman said.

A more immediate signal might be a loud siren blast, like what Tornado Alley residents in the Midwest hear when a twister approaches.

That's where the old siren atop a 40- to 50-foot pole near Stauffer's main gate could come in. Bowman has approached the company about donating the siren to the city, something that would probably save Tarpon Springs $20,000. A new siren installed would cost about $20,000, and Bowman figures the city probably needs two of them.

But there are two things in the way.

The first is an osprey. Sometime in the past two years, the bird made a nest atop the siren.

The second is Stauffer Management, which is not quite ready to let the siren go.

Stauffer site manager Frank McNeice said last week that the company wants to hang onto the siren until there's an approved cleanup plan for the Superfund site. If a cleanup plan is put in place that requires the company to excavate any buried elemental phosphorus _ a substance that can catch fire when it comes in contact with air _ the company might want to keep the siren on hand.

"If we give it away, and then we find we need it and have to buy another one, that's kind of stupid," McNeice said.

Once the company determines that it won't need the siren, then McNeice said it can apply to the proper authorities to move the osprey's nest and think about talking to the city.

Also at Stauffer is the low-power radio transmitter, which broadcasts on 1610 AM. If you tune to the frequency now, what you'll hear is noncommercial information on roads, lodging, traffic and local points of interest. Although the transmitter was originally installed as part of the Stauffer emergency notification plan, the city's current license from the Federal Communications Commission is for a travelers' information station.

Bowman wants to change that, too.

In May, he wrote the FCC a letter asking for permission to use the transmitter to distribute information in emergencies.

"With the travelers' information station already in place, it seems improvident to not utilize this tool to protect residents from natural and manmade disasters," Bowman wrote.

So far, he has yet to hear back from the FCC.

The city has considered using the siren and transmitter in tandem. One blast from the siren could let residents know to tune into the radio station or other broadcast media for emergency information. Officials have considered distributing refrigerator magnets, perhaps in the shape of an ear, with information to remind residents about the siren and radio station.

But that's a ways off. For now, if city officials need to get a message out immediately, they have to send police and firefighters into the streets with loudspeakers.

They don't like having that kind of last resort as their first option. So they say they'll continue looking for a better way.

"We're definitely not going to let that fall through," City Manager Ellen Posivach said.

_ Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielsonsptimes.com.

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