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City of Menominee to cut emergency sirens

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—The outdoor sirens the City of Menominee has relied on for years to alert the public about the threat of a major natural disaster or military strike are broken.

Instead of repairing the three existing sirens at a significant expense, the Public Safety/Public Works Committee Wednesday recommended the city remove them and not replace them. The topic is on the agenda for tonight’s Menominee City Council meeting at 6 p.m. at 2511 10th St., and time will be allotted for public comments.

“These weather sirens have been a point of contention for many, many years. They don’t always work. They’re a constant issue. (Fire) Chief Petersen needs to be commended for just keeping them up and running, because they’ve been a constant nightmare,” said Interim City Manager/Police Chief Brett Botbyl.

“Many places are actually just getting rid of them due to technology,” Botbyl said. Most people have weather apps on their smartphones with radar maps that will tell where a tornado is going to hit and where the lightning strikes are, he said.

Safety concern

But Menominee resident Brenda Quaak hopes the city doesn’t push the burden of safety communication to the citizens.

“I’ve got to believe there are systems out there we can utilize and purchase,” she said, noting she doesn’t have a TV or a radio at her house on 1st Street. “I keep a landline,” she said, because “I don’t always have cellular service.”

“If I have nothing else, are they going to start calling landlines?” Quaak asked. “Is it my responsibility to keep updating my technology or do we have a community that makes sure everybody is getting emergency alerts of some sort, such as a P.A. (pubilc announcement) system?”

Menominee is following the lead of a number of other communities that have removed the antiquated siren systems, said Patrick Parker, president of the Great Lakes Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “The old sirens for the roof are kind of going by the wayside,” he said.

“They’re being eliminated as far as I know. I’m from Michigan. A lot of communities are removing them just because everyone has a cellphone now,” he said. Ingallston Township Supervisor Paul Anderson said Ingallston doesn’t have a siren system because it’s so rural. (See related story.)

Botbyl referred to an agenda document Petersen prepared that stated ATI Systems, the Boston-based manufacturer of the current siren system used in Menominee, has failed to respond to the city’s requests for information about the feasibility and cost to retrofit the current siren system to non-rotating sirens that might be more reliable.

New systems available

The EagleHerald contacted ATI Systems Friday and learned the company has several new systems available. Most cost about $30,000 for siren or tone-and-voice system that reaches two miles. The company said many communities continue to rely on an alerting system to notify the public of a tornado, lightning or forest fire. “We now have fires that travel at 54 miles (per hour) over the hill, unprecedented,” said Bob McLaughlin, manager, ATI Systems in Boston.

“In the west part of the United States and Canada, interest is actually increasing in putting together a layered approach to community warning,” McLaughlin said, noting the company’s systems also incorporate phone and computer alerts where people are interested in receiving these. ATI’s new systems work with technologies such as the CodeRED Mobile Alert from OnSolve LLC, designed for public agency communications, Everbridge E911, and Integrated Public Alert and Warning Systems (IPAWS) from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

But these notification systems rely on cellphone users to register their numbers and keep their cellphones charged and up to date.

The dam on the Menominee River could pose a safety issue if it were to break. “If a community has a dam, if there’s an issue with a dam, you might have six minutes to evacuate to higher ground,” McLaughlin said.

Portable applications

Besides communication systems mounted on poles or structures, ATI has applications designed for portable trailers that can be parked where they’re most needed, such as a beach area during the summer. “You can put a trailer in the beach parking lot and it can go to 120 decibels,” McLoughlin said. “You can hit a big red panic button,” and in about 12 seconds, the system will announce, “Clear the water.”

At a September Waterfront Festival Committee meeting, Quaak said she would like to see a public announcement system that could be used for large city events. As a retired public school teacher, she said grant funds often are available to help cover the cost.

“If we do have something loud going on, like a festival or parade or public events, which I hope we can return to at some point, you would not be able to hear those systems as set up at the courthouse and the airport,” Quaak said Friday.

“If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction and you’re standing between buildings, you can’t hear it,” she said.

This is likely due to problems with the current siren systems. During a weekly test, the 8th Street siren near the Menominee County Sheriff Department performed half of the four announcements and failed to rotate, according to city documents. The 22nd Street siren performed one of four announcements and failed to rotate. The 41st Avenue siren has open or “blown” speakers, despite the fact four speakers were replaced in June 2017 for $1,700.

The new tone and voice systems ATI offers are improved, McLaughlin said, and they work with other forms of communications. “Cellphones are great until they don’t work. And a lot of the older population doesn’t have them,” he said.

Quaak believes the city should be doing more to improve the communication systems. A public announcement system could be used for the Waterfront Festival, the Fourth of July, Family Fun Day and public concerts. “For emergency sake, for storms coming up, especially storms in the summer when we have those big events down there…we need a bigger broadcast. We don’t have a system like that,” Quaak said.

“When we are set up for those events, if there is a medical emergency, a lost child, it is very hard to get that information out to the public that may be in the area because we really don’t have a P.A. system for the park area and what is considered the festival area for this city,” Quaak said.

Ironically, how best to communicate the news about the proposed elimination of the siren system also was the subject of discussion at the Oct. 13th Public Safety/Public Works meeting.

“You can put it on the internet,” said committee member and third ward council member Dennis Klitzke. “What it’s going to affect most is the elderly people who may not have a smartphone and who read the newspaper.”

Klitzke suggested sending a message to citizens on water bills notifying people the city won’t be using emergency sirens. “It’s almost like you have to get a flier out in bright red stating, this is what’s happening,” he said.

The city also needs the public’s help in identifying street lights that are out. “We need to be more efficient. With less staff, we have to create other alternatives for the public to be able to assist us with issues,” Botbyl said. “We’re inundated with garbage complaints daily,” and someone has to explain the difference between waste and building materials.

“It would be nice if we had buttons on the website, where if you have a light issue, push here,” Botbyl said. “We’re running out of staff.”

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Lawyers talk about religion-based exemptions
  • Updated

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MARINETTE—The Oct. 15 cutoff date for Aurora Advocate Health (AAH) employees to get their mandatory COVID-19 vaccination has passed. Some employees will be staying on as team members despite remaining unvaccinated for religious reasons.

AAH gave individuals the opportunity to file a COVID Vaccination Religious Exemption Request Form by Aug. 27 after its Aug. 4 mandate requiring all employees in the network to get a COVID vaccine. Those who were granted their request are exempt from receiving the vaccine for the duration of their employment with AAH, according to the form. In an email statement to the EagleHerald, AAH explained that a multidisciplinary group with members from the healthcare network’s human resources, spiritual care and ethics teams reviewed the requests on a case-by-case basis.

Several local law firms said they don’t know of attorneys in Marinette or Menominee counties that are currently handling cases related to COVID vaccine exemptions based on religious belief. It appears that Marinette and Menominee residents seeking legal advice on this matter have had to consult with attorneys in larger cities outside of either county.

Milwaukee-based Managing Attorney of Cross Law Firm Nola Hitchcock Cross, who represents employees in workplace discrimination cases, is one attorney who serves clients in Marinette. She emphasized that, while cases involving COVID vaccines are receiving heightened attention compared to other shots, religion-based exemptions from mandatory vaccination are not without precedent.

“We deal with similar cases every year when Advocate Aurora mandates flu shots,” she said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel.”

Legally speaking, vaccine exemptions based on religion trace back to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, part of which stipulates that employers “reasonably accommodate” the religious beliefs and practices of their employees, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Employers, however, are only obligated to provide accommodations if they do not “impose an undue hardship” on business operations, a balance that may be difficult to manage in particular for healthcare providers.

Hitchcock Cross said that, in the case of COVID vaccinations, employers have to “work the fine line to keep everyone safe and also happy” because of the potential risk to patients that unvaccinated employees could present.

“If you’re a nurse and you see patients every day, it’s going to be difficult to accommodate you without harming patients,” she said. “If you’re a nurse in the administrative office, on the other hand, it will be much easier to find some kind of accommodation.”

Although such situations have occurred to some extent in the past, Milwaukee-based Goldstein Law Group, S.C. Owner and Attorney Mark Goldstein, who provides legal advice to employers, said that in his experience prior to COVID, businesses didn’t often deal with religion-related requests for vaccine exemption. “Cases dealing with religion as related to health or safety standards were a vast minority compared to cases related to other areas of Title VII,” he said.

“For whatever reason, there’s so much more tension around the COVID vaccine, it’s so much more controversial,” Oconomowoc-based Shareholder and Attorney with Wessels Sherman Law Firm Alan Seneczko said. Wessels Sherman represents employers in employment matters.

The topic is contentious to the point that some lawyers who handle other kinds of workplace discrimination cases will not work with clients who are looking for vaccine exemptions for religious reasons.

One of these lawyers is Madison-based Employment Law and Civil Right Attorney Amy Scarr. "I cannot provide zealous representation of individuals asking for religion-based exemptions because I strongly believe in the importance of vaccinations," she said. 

COVID vaccines may also be changing the extent to which businesses and individuals understand and implement the protections of Title VII. Hitchcock Cross said that, in her experience, it seems smaller businesses tend to know less about discrimination laws. On the other hand, Seneczko said he thinks most employers are generally familiar with the details of Title VII.

Some employees, he added, seem to be implementing the protections under Title VII to avoid vaccines without having a “genuine ‘sincerely held religious belief’ as a basis for their objection.”

“I think that, whether they are becoming more educated about religious exemptions or not, people are trying to use them as a mechanism to avoid getting the vaccine,” Seneczko said.

Seneczko and Goldstein both emphasized that most major religions don’t have specific doctrines prohibiting vaccinations.

The definition of what constitutes a religion, however, is more open-ended as it relates to Title VII. Protection under Title VII includes not only members of traditional, organized religions, but also those with sincerely held ethical or moral beliefs, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Belief is highly individualized,” Hitchcock Cross said. “The person asking for an exemption doesn’t have to necessarily be part of an established religion, although it’s usually easier to get protected status if they are.”

Individuals seeking an exemption for religious reasons, furthermore, can be newly converted and do not have to consistently observe their religion, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hitchcock Cross said she has dealt with such cases in the past.

“I had a client who became a Christian Scientist after she got breast cancer three years ago, so she potentially had gotten shots before converting and then decided that, following her religion’s doctrine, she didn’t want to get them afterward,” Hitchcock Cross said. The Christian Science faith, founded by Mary Baker in 1879, has a doctrine that discourages medical intervention, according to the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics.

Although protection against religious discrimination is written into law, Seneczko said there is “not a huge amount of guidance” for employers when it comes to handling religion-based employee requests for vaccine exemptions. The process for granting such exemptions, he said, can vary from business to business, and many employers “are still trying to figure out how it works.”

The AAH exemption request form, for example, suggests that employees provide details such as proof of “consistent practice over time” that support their sincerely held religious beliefs, an element that seems to contradict the leeway provided under Title VII.

Goldstein also said it appears that many conflicts related to vaccine exemptions for religious beliefs are “being resolved informally” within businesses before they reach any official legal process. Seneczko emphasized, moreover, that some employers may be more lenient in granting exemptions compared to others.

“If you’re an employer, you might be on the side of not wanting mandatory vaccines,” he said. “That’s the quandary for businesses. If you enforce a vaccine mandate, how many of your already scarce employees are you going to lose? Most non-healthcare businesses, at least the ones that I’ve dealt with, are not really interested in mandatory vaccines because they can’t afford to lose workers. So some employers may not scrutinize each request very closely.”

The difference in demand from employees versus employers may be indicative of this conundrum; while Hitchcock Cross said her firm has been receiving calls on a daily basis from people asking for assistance in obtaining vaccine exemptions, both Goldstein and Seneczko said they aren’t currently working on any cases related to the matter involving employers in Marinette or Menominee Counties.

It’s unclear at this time what the staffing situation is like at the Aurora Medical Center-Bay Area in Marinette. AAH did not respond to inquiries from the EagleHerald regarding the number of its employees at the Bay Area branch who are exempt from getting a COVID vaccine for religious reasons.

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Marinette County panel discusses jail population

EagleHerald Editor

MARINETTE—The overpopulation issue at the Marinette County Jail was again a topic of discussion Friday at the quarterly meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

Jail Administrator Bob Majewski, the committee chairman, spent a few moments talking about the population issues. The committee then discussed some possible avenues to rectify the situation.

Majewski presented statistics showing that the jail is averaging just under 140 inmates (on a given day) at the jail for this year.

“Our staffing plan for the jail was to be up to 120 inmates, and then it was supposed to be re-looked at,” he said. “Since 2010, we have not been full staffed. We have been many years over that 120 (inmates). So, that jail staff has been doing an awesome job managing all of these inmates.”

Figures provided by jail staff show that the highest category for inmates are pre-sentencing felonies. “Most of those felonies have something to do with drugs,” Majewski said, adding that the other categories, such as strangulations and battery, likely are linked to drugs as well.

“This county has a drug problem,” he said, “and we have to try to figure out a way to fix that so that one, we will have good productive citizens in our county and two, we won’t have to build another pod on that jail.”

Majewski said that a few months ago, jail staff met with Chad Proverski of probation and parole and came up with a Criminal Justice Improvement Strategy & Plan. He pointed out that these are just ideas on issues that might alleviate the overpopulation problem.

The plan (which can be viewed on the county’s website by looking at the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee’s agenda for Oct. 15) lists problems/issues, proposed solutions, benefits of that solution, disadvantages of that solution and who is involved.

For example, one problem is the current electronic monitoring program. A possible solution, according to the plan, is to expand the program to include all sentenced inmates, including child support offenders. The advantage is that it would save beds and lower jail population. Disadvantages are the public perception, victims may not feel justice is served and staffing. Those involved would be sheriff and jail personnel.

One area that sparked a lot discussion was a TAD (treatment and diversion) program, which would address the needs of subjects earlier.

Defense Attorney Bradley Schraven said he is seeing more older people (those in their 30s, 40s and even 50s) getting involved in drugs like meth for the first time.

“There’s got to be something going on, a 40-, 50-year-old person just starts doing meth,” Majewski said. “Where does that come from? I don’t know.”

He added that jail officials are seeing “a lot of new faces” that are being caught with meth or other drugs that have no criminal history.

“Hopefully, with the TAD program, we can get those people diverted out of the criminal system and into treatment and go a different route,” Majewski said.

Poverski said these type of low-risk offenders are who the TAD program would target.

“I think it’s important to remember that these are our community members,” he said. “These are people we want to help get clean and they just don’t have the tools to do that on their own. They need a push.”

Poverski said these type of people are scared of going to jail and prison. “It’s a real deterrent to them,” he said.

He added that when the low-risk offenders sit in jail with high-risk inmates, it can have a bad effect on the low-risk offenders.

Sheriff Jerry Sauve spoke highly of the TAD program. “I think it’s a bold initiative and I think it’s spot on with what our problem is out there.”

“This is a program we’ve been excited about for a long time,” Poverski said, adding that the hope is to start it next year.

Schraven said other counties have similar programs and those are being looked at. “We don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” he said.

District Attorney DeShea Morrow pointed out that this has a been a record year in the county for felony cases. She said her office is down one attorney and she’s trying to get the position filled.