County stands behind decision not to use sirens
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County emergency officials made a decision not to activate the county's emergency siren system during the Jan. 9 chemical spill of Crude MCHM into the Elk River because they feared the sirens might confuse people.
"The decision was made not to cloud the issue," said C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County's deputy emergency services director. "The most important thing we needed to do was tell people going home not to drink their water."
Reports of a licorice-like odor at the Freedom Industries chemical tank farm on Barlow Drive began coming in at about 8 a.m. Jan. 9, but it was several hours before company officials were able to confirm that MCHM had spilled into the Elk River, about 1 1/2 miles upstream of West Virginia American Water's Charleston water treatment plant.
Water company officials initially thought they would be able to filter the chemical out at the plant's intake, but by mid-afternoon it was apparent that MCHM had gotten into the water supply and contaminated the water. Officials for the water company and state officials issued an order not to use the water for cooking, drinking or washing for 300,000 water customers in nine counties.
Kanawha County emergency officials had been monitoring the spill throughout the day, but the "do-not-use" order came in the middle of a regular meeting of the Kanawha County Commission, at about 6 p.m. Sigman said county officials were on a conference call with the water company and state officials at the time and quickly came up with a plan on how to tell residents about the dangers of the spill.
Sigman and Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said local officials discussed whether or not to activate the county's emergency siren system, and even whether to order a shelter-in-place for the emergency. In the end, Carper said they decided the sirens would be overkill, and might confuse people.
"We didn't think it would help a thing, and we believe the notification we gave [to the public] was ample," Carper said. Sigman said county officials activated the county's telephone ring-down system to call residents about the spill, activated the text message system, put out the word on social media sites and immediately contacted local news organizations to get the word out about the order not to use the water.
Carper and Sigman said one of the main uses for the emergency siren system is to alert residents who are outside their homes that they need to go inside and seek information about an emergency. "The thing we usually use it for is shelter-in-place or an evacuation," Sigman said.
Carper stands behind the county's decision not to activate the emergency sirens on Jan. 9. But that doesn't mean they might not be used if there's another chemical leak.
"That's something we may do differently in the future," he said.
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.