Even in peaceful countries prepare for siren blasts

Even in peaceful countries prepare for siren blasts

I was walking down the street when I heard it. The sound of doomsday. An air raid-style siren, slowly wailing up and down in a field, sounded over Belfast at 0830 GMT. I looked up at the sky.

But no one else nearby seemed to notice. My wife, who was wearing earphones, didn’t hear the noise at all until I pointed it out. Likewise at the supermarket on the way home. Sirens could be heard across East Belfast, however, life continued as normal.

The strange Belfast siren, the BBC understands, is linked to a fuel storage facility in Belfast Harbour. It is a fire alarm and must be so loud in part because of the size of the facility in question.

This type of siren, so strongly associated in Britain with the Second World War, is actually more than a century old, and has been used for all kinds of emergencies – not just Luftwaffe bombing raids.

Other sounds and tones are sometimes used for outdoor warnings, but the lazy and strange faltering sirens are still present at several sites around the country – from military bases to chemical plants. Just in case.

“The wailing pattern works well,” says Evan Kerr, VP of operations at Sentry Siren, a US firm that still makes mechanical sirens. “You have to get people’s attention.”

He explained that the sound was produced by a rapidly rotating fan inside a flat cylindrical housing, the outer rim of which was perforated with slits. Air pressure passes through these gaps, at an oscillating speed, which produces a very loud roar in all directions.

Today, this sound can be replicated by digital recordings played through loudspeakers but Mr Kerr argues that mechanical wailing sirens, which have been in production since at least 1905, are proven, reliable and virtually maintenance-free. He said some of the sirens made by his firm, formerly known as Sterling Siren Fire Alarm Company, have been in use for decades.

In the UK, there are air raid style sirens in some locations. Especially, at the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth. These sirens, which are tested regularly, will be used to warn the public of accidents with nuclear-powered submarines stationed there.

A Ministry of Defense spokesman said there were also external warning alarms at naval bases on the River Clyde in Scotland and Devonport in Plymouth: “Sirens are regularly maintained and monitored. There are no plans to change the emergency alarm system.”

Some siren locations are, perhaps, less obvious. Take The State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Carstairs, Scotland. Its siren system sounded, for example, when two murderers escaped in the 1970s.

The Broadmoor used to have sirens but this was discontinued in 2019 and, if a dangerous individual escapes the hospital now, an alert is sent to local residents in the form of an email or text message.

Industrial sites that handle large quantities of hazardous materials are also required to have external warning systems. Take the Hampton Water Treatment Works in West London – even if it does have a siren.

In Bradford, there are sirens at Solenis’ large chemical plant. In information sent to local residents, the company explains why the accident may be dangerous. A toxic cloud may form or, for example: “The release of flammable vapors, with subsequent ignition, may result in an explosion with potential damage within the Solenis site and beyond its boundaries.”

Advice from the company explains that, if people hear sirens when they should not be tested, they should shelter in their homes, close all windows and curtains, block incoming drafts, turn on the radio and “keep calm and relax”.

In Huddersfield, chemical company Syngenta makes insecticides and other agricultural products. It also has a siren system to alert the public in the event of a chemical emergency.

These are just a few examples. There are dozens of outdoor warning sirens around the UK and many, though not all, use the typical wail pattern of a traditional air raid style siren. One siren enthusiast has even marked the location of this system on an online map.

The strange Belfast siren, the BBC understands, is linked to a fuel processing facility in Belfast Harbour.

But online rumors have claimed the noise signals the movement of cranes at Belfast’s famous Harland & Wolff (H&W) shipyard. H&W confirmed that this was not the case.

The incident raises the question: Will people respond appropriately during a real emergency?

People must be informed about what sirens in their area might be used, says Andrea Davis, president and chief executive of The Resiliency Initiative, a US firm that advises communities on emergency management.

“So [they’re] used to it – ‘Hey, I know this sound, it’s not a scary sound, it’s an action sound – I have to do something’,” he explained.

Failing to activate the siren during an emergency can also be dangerous. Mrs Davis criticized officials in Hawaii for not using outdoor sirens when the devastating wildfires tore through Maui in August 2023.

Erica Kuligowski, a social scientist at RMIT University in Australia, who has studied the effectiveness of emergency warning systems agrees that sirens must be packaged with additional information that explains what the warning means and what people should do in response.

“We need a series of information or it will be difficult to urge people to act,” he said.

The various situations that may require sirens around the world are very diverse. Sentry Siren, for example, recently sent five of its units to Iceland. It will be used to alert the public about volcanic activity, which has caused significant disruption in Iceland in recent months.

And Monika Pavlik, international business manager at Telegrafia, a Slovakian-based siren manufacturer, said her firm’s device has been used in Ukraine where it is used as a contemporary air raid warning system. Ukraine’s neighboring countries, fearing Russian aggression, are increasingly interested in such sirens, he added: “It is a constant threat.”

Telegrafia specializes in sirens that use digital recording rather than mechanical components to produce sound. But this means the device can blast verbal information across an area or turn text into descriptive word announcements.

The company’s sirens, which are installed in 93 countries around the world, can also be triggered automatically – for example by sensors that detect flooding. Or, the government can turn on sirens that are connected across the country in the event of a nationwide emergency.

Today, sirens tend to make the news as false alarms, or when siren system tests are reported locally. Most of the time, thankfully, there is no emergency. There is always a risk that people will ignore these audible warnings when something really happens, however, which is why taking some steps to inform people about an ongoing disaster or accident is so important, experts say.

Despite the rise of alternative technologies such as mobile phone alerts, there is still a huge demand for traditional outdoor warning sirens, says Sentry Siren’s Mr Kerr: “Why not use all the tools available to you?”

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