Chiming in on new Columbia sirens


Columbia recently unveiled a new city-wide emergency siren warning system, and the change has residents talking.

“The old system consisted of three sirens that were purchased in the 1960s with an estimated coverage of 9 percent of the (current) community,” a press release on the city’s website reads. “The city has been fortunate with the performance of the sirens, but as they fail, parts are difficult to secure.”

Enter the new system, which uses five sirens strategically located around the city to provide coverage for the entire community. They have no moving parts and are powered by solar panels.

But it isn’t the solar panels that have residents discussing the daily tones, which come at noon and 6 p.m. 

The short wail that marked lunch and supper times in Columbia for more than five decades, not without its own share of controversy over the years, has been replaced by Westminster chimes, colloquially called “church bells.” And on the city’s public Facebook page, a post outlining the changes to the warning system drew scores of opinions.

A quick count of the nearly 50 comments revealed an audience fairly evenly divided. 

“Bring back the siren, that is Columbia. It’s always been that way,” wrote Beth Killy Gummersheimer. “Tradition.”

“I thought there was a funeral going on,” Cameron C. Cook added. “Bring back the siren.”

They aren’t alone. Reasons against the Westminster chimes ranged from the piece’s length and volume, to its electronic sound, to its sleep disrupting qualities and, as Gummersheimer wrote, tradition.

But just as many commenters are embracing the change.

“I live next to the siren,” Catie Bowler wrote. “My ears thank you for the chimes.”

“I like the chimes,” Luanna Blissenbach added. “…I think they are fitting for a small town. I hope you keep them.”

A few people brought up the tradition itself:

“Why do you have to sound the sirens every day?” asked Brian Berghoefer. “So annoying for people who live next to them.”

“And we are keeping the noon and 6 p.m. sirens because?” asked Kathy Harres.

Others seem resigned to the change.

“Do not care for the chimes at all,” Kathy Cook wrote. “But I guess that is progress.”

Some residents, like Ellen McGee, are just happy to be here.

“I moved to Columbia 13 years ago and have always loved the sirens! Something special about our town. Don’t care what sounds they make… love it!”

The decision was made to change the noon and 6 p.m. tones to enhance to efficacy of the entire warning system.

“One of the components of an effective warning system is to have distinct and easily recognized tones (sirens) for each type of event,” the city explained in a news release. “It was decided to keep the standard ‘alert’ tone for tornado warnings.”

In consultation with the Columbia Fire Department, a “wail” tone was selected for fire calls since it sounds similar to the sirens on emergency vehicles.

“The remaining tone, the noon and 6 p.m. tone, needed to be distinctly different from the other two,” the city continued. “With the increased coverage area, it was decided a more subtle tone should be used. As a result, the church bells (Westminster chimes) were selected.”

The new sirens are located near Immaculate Conception Church off Palmer Road; next to the Cherry Street water tower; on the property of Bethany United Methodist Church; off Admiral Trost Drive; and behind the Columbia Department of Public Works building.

The new system also has voice capabilities that will be used in a limited capacity.

“Practical applications for voice messages would be a hazardous materials incident or an evacuation order,” the city wrote. “The voice capabilities could be used to provide directions to residents.”

Although the new array of sirens can reach the entirety of the city, it’s not yet fully operational. The tornado and fire tones still come from the original three sirens. Only the noon and 6 p.m. tones are coming from the new sirens thus far, reaching more people than ever.

In other Columbia news:
Talk continues to swirl around traffic on the Route 3 corridor. Following a Feb. 27 fatal crash, and two other less serious crashes since, a vocal group of citizens have taken to Facebook and other forums demanding change that includes everything from adding stop lights and lowering the speed limit, to lengthening the cycle of the lights already there, increasing fines for violations and installing cameras.

Columbia Police Chief Jerry Paul has said his department is committed to making Route 3 in Columbia a safe place to drive, within the confines of the law. Many drivers on social media have taken notice.

“Our CPD and Chief Paul are addressing our concerns quickly,” wrote Tara Masidonski, an administrator of the Facebook group “Citizens Demanding Change on Illinois Route 3, Columbia, Illinois.”

Masidonski goes on to describe some of the steps CPD is taking, including using a speed trailer, creating an unmarked car specifically for patrolling and identifying offenders more covertly, placing marked cars with mannequins in them at lighted intersections to encourage “voluntary” compliance, and more. Paul is also working closely with IDOT to determine what, if any, changes can be made to the state highway as results of the fatal crash investigation are released, probably early this summer.

“The CPD is wonderful and Chief Paul has kept open communication with our group,” Masidonski continued. “Thank our officers any chance you see them out. They are doing all they can. Thank you all for keeping our group page peacefully flowing.”

FOX2 interviewed Paul and Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson following Monday’s council meeting for a story on the safety of Route 3.

Others aren’t convinced all this extra action is the way to go, however.

“There are laws on the books we don’t need more. What you need is to change people’s behavior and that can’t be written into law,” wrote one gentleman.

With the talk of slowing down traffic on Route 3, the subject of a stoplight at Carl Street is once again on peoples’ minds.

Since Route 3 is a state highway, its speed limits, stoplight locations and timing are governed by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

As residents of Carl Street and the Burroughs subdivision can attest, making a left turn onto Route 3 can be a risky proposition. But when both the city and the state conducted mandated traffic studies at the intersection, it came up short of qualifying for a light.

“Basically, we applied for a stoplight and the state told us traffic counts on Carl Street don’t warrant a signal,” Columbia city engineer Chris Smith said.

If development increases or other traffic changes occur in the area, the city can ask for a re-evaluation of the intersection. But for the foreseeable future, Route 3 at Carl Street will not be a signaled intersection.

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