When Columbia City’s early warning system sirens sound for testing twice a month, the wail is loud enough to irritate people for miles around but, for one group of volunteers, it’s music to their ears.

The Whitley County Siren Test Group is a group of volunteers, most of them amateur radio operators, who assist the city with testing the early warning system at noon on the first and third Monday of each month.

The group started in 1995 when the city added five more sirens in addition to the one at City Hall.

Dan Dahms has been a member of the group since the beginning and serves as its coordinator. Previously, he served as the director of Whitley County Emergency Management Agency and as a volunteer firefighter. Like others in the group, he developed an interest in radio after monitoring public safety communications. He later got his license in the early 1990s.

Other members became interested in radio because of family and friends who had their amateur radio operator license. Several members said it was an interest in technology that led to the hobby. For some, that hobby inspired a career – the group has two engineers in their ranks.

“[In terms of modern communication,] most of the technology that was developed was because of amateur radio,” Dan said, noting the internet has roots in radio.


Test prep

Preparation for the EMS siren/PA test starts about a week ahead of time when Dan assigns volunteers to the six locations.

On March 5, Dan and his wife Melanie, who is also an amateur radio operator, monitored the siren near the intersection of W. Lincolnway and Depoy Drive.

“This one has been known to be a problem child,” Melanie said, eyeing the towering siren. However, the siren functioned properly, rotating while sounding a three-minute-long wail that can travel as far as a mile on a still day.

At noon, a city dispatcher sounds the sirens. After the test, each volunteer radios in with a status report from their location. In addition to making sure that the sirens are working, volunteers also assess the physical integrity of the site to make sure that it’s clear of any obstructions like tree branches.

Malfunctions aren’t unheard of – sometimes the sirens don’t shut off when they’re supposed to, batteries have exploded in the past and sometimes the siren sounds sluggish, Melanie said.

The volunteers also interact with curious members of the public, she said. They get questions including: “Why is the siren going off?” and “Did you set that off?”

People often say that they can’t hear the sirens from inside their house, but that’s the point, volunteer Edward Scott said. He also serves as the deputy Whitley County Emergency Management Agency director.

“The purpose is to get people who are outside to know that something is going on and to go inside, turn your computer on, turn your phone on and figure out what’s going on,” he said.


Tuning in

After the siren test, volunteers meet up for lunch at a local restaurant, usually Richard’s.

“When we walked in today, the manager made a comment that she knew we were coming because the sirens were going off. Some of the regular staff here will get the table set up for us when they hear the sirens go off,” Scott said.

Melanie said the siren test is a good opportunity to support public safety and utilize their skills.

“It’s helping out the community, and we get to exercise our skills as radio operators,” she said.

“It’s also nice to get together as a group of friends and grab lunch afterwards.”

The amateur radio operators share a sense of camaraderie, checking into nets, or on-air gatherings, each Wednesday and Sunday.

When individuals get their license, they are assigned a unique call sign that they use to identify themselves during communication.

“You might learn a person’s call sign before you ever learn their name,” Melanie said.

Amateur radio operators can also apply for a vanity call sign, much like a custom license plate. Melanie adopted her grandfather’s call sign. He had been an amateur radio operator since the 1940s. After he passed away, she was able to apply for his call sign.

Getting involved

Volunteers often bring their spouse, children or grandchildren along for siren testing. You don’t necessarily have to be an amateur radio operator to assist in some way, Melanie said.

Getting licensed to become an amateur radio operator involves studying up on your own or taking a class to prepare for an examination on applicable regulations, electronics, radio theory and radio operation. Locally, tests are administered at the Peabody Public Library.

There are also several local clubs that amateur radio operators can get involved in, including the Whitley County Amateur Radio Club, which gathers for general meetings 6-8 p.m. the second Thursday of each month at the Peabody Public Library. General meetings are open to the public. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/445281282513824.