Bethany Beach may give verbal warning

Bethany Beach installed a new lightning warning system this summer, designed to warn police and lifeguards that a lightning-producing storm is in the vicinity so that they can clear the town’s beach and boardwalk and thus reduce the chances of beachgoers being struck by lightning.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet is now proposing that the town take that system one step further, moving from a system that generates telephone calls to the beach patrol captain and police station to one that provides a loud verbal warning to all within hearing range of the beach and boardwalk, or even throughout the town.

Graviet made a presentation on the voice warning system at the Oct. 19 town council meeting, asking council members if they would like to consider the additional purchase, for which some $15,000 in grant funding is available through the end of November.

“This has some real potential for public safety,” Graviet said, noting that Public Safety Officer Ralph Mitchell had witnessed tests of the system in La Plata, Md. – which was struck by a devastating F-4 tornado in 2002.

The voice systems, depending on the range purchased by the town, would either warn an area along the beach and boardwalk, as far west as the 200 block of Hollywood Street, Parkwood Street and Central Boulevard — possibly nearly to Kent Avenue — or, with a larger system, roughly the entire town.

The system for the smaller area of warning would cost the town roughly $30,000 to install, Graviet said, of which $15,000 would have to come from town coffers. The larger system is expected to cost about $40,000, but Graviet said he did not yet have a firm estimate for the larger system. He said increased demand for the systems since the massacre at Virginia Tech in April 2007 had driven prices upward.

Graviet told council members last Friday that the voice alert system is similar to that employed by many golf courses and at locations such as Little League fields, where people may be outside for prolonged periods and not realize a dangerous storm is coming up on them.

The system would feature a 4- to 8-foot element atop a 35-foot-tall pole, placed strategically throughout the town, in a pattern designed to reach either the smaller or larger coverage area.

Graviet emphasized that the council would control how and when the voice warning system is used, as well as the message broadcast. He said that means it could be used in circumstances other than lightning storms, such as to broadcast instructions for evacuation to aid police officers going door-to-door in such an event. The system could also announce the search for a lost child, he noted.

“It will produce a voice that you will hear throughout the town, indoors or out,” Graviet said.

The voice system appeared to generate council support, in theory, but there were questions about the need for the larger system.

“From a public safety standpoint, it sounds really good,” Council Member Joseph Healy said.

Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny asked whether the system could be utilized to reach not only the town’s public beach but also all community and private pools within the town. Graviet said the larger system would be able to do that, “for a little more money.”

“With the larger system, we will be able to pick up every pool, every resident,” he said.

To concerns that the voice warning system might become more of a nuisance than a useful safety device, Graviet said, “There will be no warnings for a thunderstorm at 1 a.m.” The council would set rules and make choices for what events trigger an alert, he emphasized.

The loudness of the system would be set in accordance with the range it needs to reach, Graviet said, with no ability to reduce its volume for individual alerts.

Council Member Steve Wode questioned whether the existing system could also be used to notify pools within the town, but Graviet said would be unworkable due to the number of pools and the fact that many have no lifeguards.

Graviet also reminded council members that the new, wider beach that is currently being constructed in the town may make the new system even more important than was expected when the lightning warning system was initially purchased.

“The task of emptying the beach is going to change dramatically in the next few months,” he said.

Mayor Carol Olmstead noted that even after the town’s lifeguards have gone off-duty for the day, the usefulness of the system would continue.

“The boardwalk and beach are very crowded after the lifeguards go off-duty,” she said.

Wode, however, challenged the benefit of the larger system and larger coverage area. “I like it for those areas,” he said of the beach and boardwalk. “It makes sense. But I can’t see it for the rest of the town.” Wode said he opposed spending additional money for the larger coverage area, at least at this time.

With the exact cost estimate for installing the larger system not yet established, Council Member Tracy Mulligan asked Graviet if he could bring two full proposals — for both systems — to the council for their November meeting and a possible decision.

“This is the kind of thing where you may not need it; but if you do, you need it fast, and bad, and that’s what you’re thinking of,” he said of Graviet’s proposal.