ST. LOUIS, Mo. – In a private online conversation, a top St. Louis official acknowledged not only a failure in the city’s outdoor warning siren system, but little money dedicated toward maintaining the system.

In a 2021 conversation on Facebook, City of St. Louis Emergency Management Commissioner Sarah Russell told a citizen that there were areas of the city that were difficult for coverage with the warning system.

“We have an annual budget of $20,000 to manage the sirens. I have a deductible to pay for one siren that was knocked off its pole which is $5,000 and annual battery replacement is $17,000. That leaves $0 for other maintenance and repairs. This is an ongoing conversation I have been having with my director and throughout the budget process. Right now, there isn’t a great answer for how to fix it. The parts are getting harder and more expensive to get and we just aren’t getting more budget to keep up with it.”

City of St. Louis Emergency Management Commissioner Sarah Russell

Russell agreed to an interview to discuss the outdoor sirens and the Facebook messages.

“That was part of the old funding we had to do repairs,” Russell told FOX2. “Sirens are subject to varying degrees of working or occasionally not working, and that’s something that we try to keep track of.”

The City of St. Louis has 60 sirens which are activated during significant severe weather, including the recent storms where two different tornado warnings were issued for the city.

The city faced questions after the recent tornado warnings because some residents reported not hearing the sirens.

Last week, the city said it activated the outdoor system for the tornado warnings.

“We can just confirm that the outdoor warning system was activated for both tornado warnings,” a city spokeswoman said.

Russell’s 2021 Facebook messages bring new questions though surrounding the sirens and if some are not working properly.

“I did sit there on a test date late last year, prior to November and it did work on that occasion. Marine Villa in general is a difficult area for coverage with our system. Plus the system is now 22-years-old and is manufactured to have a lifespan of 15 years if it is well maintained.”

Sarah Russell

“I believe that this siren is not functioning, but I have not been given a good reason why based upon the data we have. This is not the only siren that is an issue.”

Sarah Russell

The commissioner relies on citizens to report faulty sirens, or firefighters, since many are located at firehouses.

The city received 92 complaints in 2022 from people unable to hear the siren. FOX2 has crunched the numbers and the majority of complaints come from neighboring wards in and around South City, where Thomas Wokurka lives. He is unable to hear the siren.

“I think there’s something terribly wrong here with the entire system,” Wokurka said.

St. Louis ward map

Russell did not have a solid number on which sirens work or not in the city.

“When you do these tests, because of the age of our system, each siren doesn’t necessarily respond,” Russell said.

The commissioner said the sirens receive silent test activations, but it doesn’t necessarily sent the full results back to their office.

“You have to remember, this is one of many tools we use,” Russell said.

The city has NotifySTL, an automated warning system that can call, text or send an email about warnings.

Wokurka said it’s no excuse for sirens not working.

“We’re paying for the service, we should be getting the service. It’s our taxpayer dollars that we’re spending,” Wokurka said.

The city has proposed buying a new outdoor warning system in 2024’s budget, totaling $3.9 million.

“That is going to include a study of the City of St. Louis which hasn’t been done since the last time the siren system was installed,” Russell said.

The city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment has scheduled a meeting for Monday at 2 p.m. to take the first vote on the proposed budget. If it’s approved, it will head to the full Board of Alderman.

“I’m very confident at this point that we are going to have that funding when this budget is approved,” Russell said.

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