Sirens' song no signal of disaster Technicians trying to fix system made wrong connection

September 14, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It was a mistake, a malfunction, a muffed attempt to mend the mute: That's how civil defense sirens began wailing through Baltimore on an otherwise peaceful Thursday afternoon this week.

The 112-siren alarm system, a remnant of the Cold War and its nuclear fears, has sounded across the city at 1 p.m. every Monday for 32 years. But this week it fell silent, and when technicians tried to fix it, they tapped into the wrong circuit about 1:30 p.m. Thursday and set off seven of the sirens for 10 minutes.

And almost no one -- except the Bell Atlantic Corp. workers who'd made the goof -- knew what was going on.

An attack by the Russians seems as likely today as a 1950s

invasion of flying saucers. And more than three decades after the Cuban missile crisis, people hardly pay attention to the weekly testing of the sirens beyond checking to see if their watch is keeping time.

But at 1: 30 p.m. Thursday, the phones started ringing at City Hall, the Fire Department and the city's Emergency Management office, which maintains the alarm system from offices at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building at Holliday and Lexington streets.

What was going on? Nothing.

"Inadvertent" is the word the phone company used to describe the sound of sirens that blared from the Wolman building, from atop Douglass Senior High School and a handful of other places around town. Police dispatchers immediately told officers citywide to disregard the alarm.

"We knew right away it was a glitch," said Fire Department Battalion Chief Hector Torres. "But the fact that we got phone calls indicates that people are still paying some attention to it."

But if the original threat that prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to install the system in 1952 has disappeared because of new defense technologies, why maintain a Sputnik-era system in the Information Age?

And if there was a real threat -- a chemical disaster, hurricanes or civil unrest -- what should people do when the sirens sound?

In the old days, the wail was a school child's cue to hide under their desk or for office workers to scurry to subterranean shelter. Today, they tell you to turn on the radio.

The city maintains the system at a cost of $25,000 a year because it wants to, says Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management. Most other local governments have abandoned their sirens, he said, although one has been added at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"We think it still has its place to alert the public that might not be watching television to a variety of hazards like chemical leaks in South Baltimore or hurricanes," Kocher said, while noting that Baltimore's sirens have never sounded in earnest. "And it's been instilled in everybody since childhood what to do in a case like that -- turn on the radio and listen to emergency broadcast warnings of what to do next."

WBAL radio, 1100 on the AM dial, is the station the Fire Department recommends the public tune into in an emergency.

"If it had been a real emergency, depending on the level -- say there was a federal emergency, and an official called in with the proper codes and passwords -- we would have activated the emergency broadcast system," said Mark Miller, WBAL news director.

The emergency broadcast system uses that familiar high-pitched tone that interrupts your favorite radio station, except that in a real emergency, it is not preceded by the words: "This is a test."

Other stations on the emergency network would pick up the signal and simultaneously broadcast the emergency information across the state. If the problem was anything less than a wide threat to public safety, stations would simply break in to regular programming to broadcast the news.

"A lot of this was put together in days gone by when most radio stations just played music," said Miller. "But now we're always doing news anyhow and would lead with whatever was going on. They're working on technology now where they just put a silicon chip into your TV or radio, and when there's an emergency, it would turn on by itself and give you the news."

The siren system in Baltimore, however, was still not fixed as of yesterday.

And we won't know if it is until 1 p.m. Monday when there will be silence or sirens.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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