FORNEY, Texas — As the City of Forney recently touted it's "robust" emergency notification system, records newly obtained by inForney.com reveal several deficiencies and gaps in the city's ability to mass notify the general public in the event of an emergency or tornado.
Not only that, records and e-mails show repeated requests for funding to restore basic functionality of the city's three outdoor warning sirens, gaps in the siren's current coverage, the city manager's failure to notify the city council of the system's "significant problems" and funding needs, and a lack of understanding by top city officials on the functionality of their current Everbridge notification system.
Outdoor Warning Siren system deficiencies and inadequate coverage
Currently, the City of Forney has three outdoor warning sirens located at York Street in between Forestwood Drive and Carl C Senter Street; near Douglas Street and East Church Street in downtown Forney; and Parkside Road and Woods Road in the Fox Hollow neighborhood.
The Outdoor Warning Siren system is designed to warn those who are outdoors to seek shelter inside and seek additional information from their television or radio, according to the City of Forney's website. The sirens aren't used to just notify of possible tornadoes but, can additionally be activated for reported hail of 1.25" in diameter or greater, smaller hail where large numbers of people are gathered outdoors, rotation in a dangerous cloud, or straight-line winds over 70 miles per hour.
Typically, an outdoor warning siren has an effective range of one-mile radius, depending on the type of siren, topography of its surrounding location, and atmospheric conditions — which further illustrates a severe lack in coverage of the sirens' effective range throughout the city limits of Forney. To compare, the City of Ennis, which is relatively similar to the City of Forney in population, operates seven outdoor warning sirens, all of which overlap in their coverage areas. Similar overlapping designs have been implemented in other north Texas cities, including Flower Mound and Dallas, which publicly display their map data.
The City of Forney ceased testing of the Outdoor Warning Siren system in December 2020 due to the system's "significant deficiencies" which had been "well documented" during tests conducted in previous months, according to meeting notes and e-mails obtained by inForney.com.
It wasn't until area residents noticed the audible, once-monthly testing of the sirens had ceased, did the City of Forney respond. No previous notification had been sent by the City of Forney alerting residents of the system's deficiencies, outages, or need to rely on additional alerting systems while a long-term solution was identified and implemented. Instead, the City of Forney touted its partnership with Everbridge, a digital-based mass notification system.
"The City of Forney has received multiple inquiries regarding its outdoor warning system," read a statement, in part, from the City of Forney on March 4, 2021. "The outdoor warning system is outdated technology and only covers a small portion of the City when fully operational."
"The City worked on this partnership primarily with a forward-thinking approach knowing that Outdoor Warning systems are outdated, limited in range, expensive to maintain, and lack dynamic control of the message," continued the statement. "Forney, along with many Cities across the North Texas area and the nation, have transitioned to this digital, advanced alerting method as it has proven to be the most practical and effective."
The City of Forney's Outdoor Warning Sirens had been intermittently failing and in need of continuous repair since at least November 2018, according to records released during an inForney.com public records for all maintenance records, testing records, and email communication regarding the system since mid-2018. Even so, the city admits, the Outdoor Warning Sirens only cover "a small portion of the city."
Of the proposals, e-mails, and call sheets released under our public records request, contractors and city personnel noted that, through the period beginning in mid-2018 until present, the sirens experienced issues related to, among other things, lack of maintenance to the sirens and equipment, defective batteries and chargers, and no sound, muffled or audio with static, low volume, failed rotation, issues with the programming box, and siren malfunctions during tests.
"The system maintains its functionality with intermittent failures; an example is sometimes the head will fail to rotate on a particular site," City of Forney Social Media Specialist Zach Smith told inForney.com last week in response to a request for additional information on the system's functionality and maintenance history.
"The Outdoor Warning System has not been decommissioned and long-term plans are being developed," continued Smith. "Staff will be presenting options to the council during the budget process for the upcoming fiscal year."
Budget requests and city council notification
Obtained in the records were numerous e-mails and meeting notes which requested budget appropriations to fix the ailing Outdoor Warning Siren system and for the Forney City Council to be made aware of the system's status to provide direction moving forward.
In a February 26, 2020, email from Forney Police Department Lt. Todd Eudy to then-Director of Operations Neil Cardwell, Eudy states, "Neil, I was made aware that we have been having issues with our tornado sirens and that the sirens we currently have are considered old technology. Would you suggest we look at replacing this system in the next budget FY2021?"
"It was on my list as well considering I am finding it very hard to get anyone to work on it," Cardwell responded. "I will make sure its in the 2021 FY proposed budget."
Cardwell, according to the records, was brought into e-mail communications related to repairs to the Outdoor Warning Siren system as early as November 2019 due to his oversight of the city's facilities and information technology systems. Cardwell says he had begun seeking estimates and quotes for repair and replacement of the Outdoor Warning Siren system over the next several months and met with several vendors to perform the work, according to e-mail communication between city staff.
On March 11, 2020, Forney Police Department Chief Mica Lunt, who had joined and been appointed chief of police in October 2019, forwarded an email to Cardwell from a Fort Worth-based outdoor weather siren and communications company seeking to inspect the city's siren system while they were in the area servicing another customer.
"I know that we are looking at budgeting for upgrades to our OWSs in next year’s budget, but is this something/a company that we should engage with at this point?" Lunt stated in that email, noting the budgetary request.
Then, in July and September of 2020, meeting notes between Lunt and City Manager Anthony "Tony" Carson indicate Lunt notified Carson of the system's failures after testing in June and July, despite repair efforts, identified "significant problems" and "rendered the siren system out of service."
In both meetings, Carson indicated he would notify the Forney City Council of the siren system's deficiencies and seek direction from the council, according to the notes.
By December 2020, however, in a follow-up meeting with Lunt, additional meeting notes indicate Carson "forgot" to notify the city council of the system's status and did not have any direction to provide to staff. This after funding for the siren system was absent from the most-recently approved Fiscal Year 2021 budget as presented to, and approved by, the Forney City Council in September 2020 nor was it among $1.4 million in Q4 expenditures by the City of Forney related to Coronavirus Relief Fund spending, which itself may have violated provisions of the CARES Act.
Of the records obtained, two quotes to replace one of the city's current sirens ranged from $15,000 to approximately $24,000. Previous maintenance proposals and invoices included a proposed $3,500 annual maintenance contract of all three sirens, including the use of the contractors lift-bucket for inspections, a battery replacement schedule, with any parts billed separately; approximately $545 for service, labor, and the replacement of two batteries; and a $3,000 quote for other non-specified repairs.
Everbridge and city's current restriction on mass, location-based notifications
In response to citizens' concerns about the Outdoor Warning Siren system, the City of Forney began drafting a press release on March 4, 2021, to tout its partnership with Everbridge.
"If you would, please communicate today with Zach to have an informative post about our Everbridge Alert System used by the City to Mass Notify the citizens of events, including Tornado Sirens." read an email from Cardwell to Lunt, Smith, and Forney Fire Department Chief Derek Briggs. Cardwell has since been promoted to Deputy City Manager overseeing the Forney Police Department, Forney Fire Department, and the Economic Development Cooperation.
"I would appreciate it. Making sure we can notify our citizens is an essential function of government, Everbridge with its ability to mass notify, it is the active system for emergency alerts in the City," he stated.
In response, Lunt asked what information Cardwell wanted out publicly about the Outdoor Warning Sirens and their current status. Cardwell replied, "Please discuss Everbridge and how the system is the current method for notification of events, including tornado sirens."
Subsequently, the City of Forney issued its March 4th statement on social media. Not long after the statement was posted, according to inter-departmental e-mails obtained through the public records request, Lunt inquired about a possible misleading statement made in the Facebook Post, specifically, the city's ability to send notifications to people who had not previously registered or opted-in to receive notifications.
"The statement is accurate the system does not require registration to receive alerts as it’s is dynamically updated using multiple sources to know who is in the area," Cardwell responded. "Registration allows for citizens to customize settings among other options."
"As I reflected to you, it is my opinion that the statement is misleading," stated Lunt, in response. "As of the time of this email, we have 9027 registered persons we can contact in case of an emergency. Our city has a population of approximately 25,000 with over 40,000 in and around our area. Forney does not have IPAWS access to notify persons in our geographic area independent of their registration status with Everbridge."
In 2018, city officials had inquired about certifying for use of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to relay messages to the public as such certification had been presented to the council when they adopted the transition of the city's alert system from Blackboard to Everbridge, according to city records and e-mails.
While Everbridge provides IPAWS integration through its software offerings, which allows local governments to utilize the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, and similar public notification services, the City of Forney never completed the required training, tested its implementation with its 3rd-party IPAWS compatible software, applied for a Memorandum of Agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or applied for Public Alerting Permission which identifies the local governments' intent on types of alerts and identifies its geographical warning area as approved by a state reviewer prior to its submittal to FEMA.
"The gold standard in mass notifications is a layered approach that includes outdoor warning sirens, mass messaging notifications such as Everbridge, social media, etc. based upon a hazards review and overall assessment (e.g. where people are more likely to gather outside, etc.)," continued Lunt's e-mail to Cardwell. "I hope that we can work together to ensure our citizens are properly informed of our capabilities and how they can most successfully receive information during emergencies."
Being an IPAWS alerting authority would allow the City of Forney to push notifications — such as a loud-audible alert to cell-enabled devices in a designated area, similar to an AMBER Alert notification — to those not registered to the City of Forney's Everbridge system, which also includes those, but not limited to, non-residents and visitors, those traveling through the city or shopping, and work commuters.
To register, or opt-in, to receive alerts through the City of Forney's Everbridge system, click here: https://member.everbridge.net/index/892807736728901#/login
Forney City Council to discuss current status of Outdoor Warning Siren system during March 16th meeting
The Forney City Council is set to receive an update on the Outdoor Warning Siren system during their regularly-scheduled meeting on March 16, 2021. The meeting will be closed to in-person public attendees but can be viewed online on the City of Forney's website.
The meeting comes just three weeks shy of the nine-year anniversary of an EF-3 tornado that struck portions of Forney on April 3, 2012.