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Requests Aside, Air Raid Sirens Will Stay Silent

The Cold War relics, described as outmoded by an L.A. official, don't work anymore.

April 17, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

Now that the war with Iraq is subsiding, Bob Canfield can put away the old file, the one he hauls out whenever fear pierces the comfortable routine of daily life.

In it, the assistant general manager of Los Angeles' Emergency Preparedness Department keeps a record of the city's old civil defense system and the 225 air raid sirens that were posted on towers and telephone poles during the Cold War to blare a warning of nuclear attack.

When people get scared enough, Canfield said, the question always comes up: Can we turn them back on?

Recently, many have been scared. Since the war began, he has fielded about a dozen phone calls and e-mails from people worried about terrorist reprisals and wanting to know if the sirens still work.

"People have said, why do you bother keeping that file?" he said. "But every once in a while, people will call and ask about the crazy things."

Roy Fizer is one of them.

"What if we're asleep at night in bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, and somehow one of those countries decided to send a missile this way?" asked Fizer, a 51-year-old church organist in South Los Angeles who said he has tried to ask everyone from the governor to the mayor about reactivating the sirens. "Why, there would be no warning system whatsoever."

Kenneth Rose, author of "One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture," said he is not surprised that the fear of terrorism and North Korea's recently disclosed nuclear ambitions have caused some people to hark back to the days of a civil defense system.

"Both in the Cold War and now, there's very little an individual can do to guard against such unexpected attacks," said Rose, a history professor at Cal State Chico. "People want to be comforted. They want to be told they can do something to assure their own survival, and that it's not a totally hopeless situation."

Added historian and state librarian Kevin Starr: "They are a psychological reassurance, a way of saying we're in a condition of alert now."

Some city officials are also looking for reassurance. Councilwoman Janice Hahn recently called emergency preparedness officials to a council meeting to report on what the city was doing to alert people in case of an attack, whether with a dirty bomb, a missile or chemical agents.

"I think my residents are not feeling like they know what to do in the event of an emergency," she said.

Ellis Stanley, the general manager of the Emergency Preparedness Department, told the council that the public should prepare as they would for an earthquake or any other type of disaster: Stock up on bottled water and canned goods; establish a meeting place for family members; and stay tuned to the radio and television.

The answer, officials said, is not a return to Cold War-era air sirens.

First of all, the sirens don't work. In 1986, the city discovered that more than half were not functioning because of rusted metal and rotted cables. Since the federal government had stopped providing funding for their upkeep, and the threat of a nuclear attack had subsided, the city decided to turn them off.

Removing the sirens would have cost more than $250,000, so officials left them in place, removing only those whose towers had become unstable.

No one has kept track of how many are left. Some are perched in mustard-colored towers, such as the one on 3rd Street at the end of a posh Hancock Park street. Others are wedged on telephone poles, such as the one that was in the alley behind Canfield's grandmother's house in South Los Angeles. For the most part, they have faded to the background, ungainly anachronisms from another era when an attack seemed imminent.

In any case, a blaring siren would not be an effective way to alert people to the kinds of threats they face today, Canfield said. "Even if you could sound the alarm, what would you be telling people to do?" he asked.

In the Cold War, the wail of a siren indicated a nuclear attack, and the public knew to flee to the nearest fall-out shelter. The shelters were not actual underground bunkers, but facilities designated as places where the public should go to wait out an attack: underground garages, basements, even McDonald's restaurants. Until the mid-1980s, two city workers had full-time jobs making sure that the fall-out shelters were well-stocked with food, water, portable toilets, batteries and Geiger counters.

The city used to test the sirens at 10 a.m. on the last Friday of the month. The sirens emitted a crescendoing wail that echoed through the streets. Children knew to duck under their desks.

If people heard that sound now, Canfield said, they would just panic.

It was the desire to avoid panic that motivated some callers.

The manager of a customs brokerage house was updating the emergency plans for her office and wanted to know if the sirens were part of the city's warning system. One man suggested that the city use the sirens to indicate different kinds of emergencies: One blast would mean one kind of attack; two blasts would mean another kind.

Fizer said he just wants to be alerted if something goes terribly wrong: "Everybody is not going to be sitting around the television," he said. "There might be some people in the shower or in the backyard cutting roses. At least a siren lets us know to get ready for something. We can clench our family members, and take cover."

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