One of the most frustrating things a meteorologist can hear on the news after a tornado hits a town is, “We didn’t hear any sirens!”
The full name and use of sirens is “outdoor warning devices.” In other words, they are meant to warn people who are outdoors. In fact, severe weather is the third thing they are to be used for! It is assumed that if you are outdoors and a tornado is bearing down on your town you will have other visual and audio cues such as a dark sky, rain, hail, lightning and thunder. The first and second reasons for outdoor warning devices are for air raids and a missile attack. Even these purposes are becoming outdated as communications have vastly improved since the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even the 80s.
Despite this, too many people still rely on Outdoor Warning Devices to be the first line of information when they are indoors. The sirens were never designed to be heard indoors. If your community does monthly, weekly or daily tests of sirens and you CAN hear them indoors, consider this: they can be difficult to hear well on a clear, sunny day. Throw in howling wind, crashing thunder, hail and the roar of a tornado, not to mention Spotify playing at a high volume or being in the basement watching cable TV, and its a wonder anyone can hear them at all!
This 2012 article highlights all the hazards of what’s been called “the state tree of Kansas.” Unfortunately 9 years later the situation is largely unchanged.
Surely there’s something more reliable!
Why, yes there is. Or perhaps I should say, “are.”
The most reliable and timely of these would be a specialized radio called a NOAA Weather Radio. With these, there is no delay and you can leave them off until they send out a special signal to trigger them to go off. If you were designing a nearly-perfect system even with the most cutting-edge technology, it would probably still look an awful lot like this program that has been around for decades. That is not to say that it IS perfect. There are far too many “false alarms” and it only takes one or two alarms going off in the middle of the night for a storm that isn’t going to affect you for people to unplug them and put them in a drawer.
A way that has become ever more popular is the smart phone that a great majority of the population carries around with us nowadays. This, too, is set up with a system called WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) that can cause an alarm to go off when something serious is happening such as a message from the president, a tornado warning or Amber Alert. Again, this is not perfect either as one can easily “opt out” of getting them. (Note, that although you can opt out of tornado warnings and Amber Alerts, you cannot opt out of presidential messages.) Another thing that makes this a much-less-than-ideal system is that many recent disasters have shown that cell phones are often the first things to go out, sometimes even before electricity. Phone companies continue to invest billions in updating their networks with things like 5G, but the truth is that there is only so much bandwidth to go around and when it is used up by thousands of people trying to get information or make calls at the same time, the system ceases to function.
A few years ago, there was a push to make weather radios mandatory in certain types of businesses and buildings, much like smoke detectors are. There is even the technology now to integrate weather radios into smoke detectors. For a number of financial, political and ideological reasons, this legislation never really went anywhere, but with people being used to things like an Echo alerting them when their Amazon packages arrive, perhaps the tide will turn on this and we may see another push of legislation that would get farther.
While tornado sirens may be overrated and outdated, there is a push to modernize them as much as possible. Research has gone into what tones would be more effective (ironically, the old, sweeping tone of a mechanical siren continues to come out on top!) and systems have been upgraded to use the polygonal warning system the NWS uses, so the sirens don’t go off across the entire county if a storm is only affecting the corner of a county. Nashville, TN, a community that has been especially hard-hit by tornadoes in recent years, has spent millions of dollars over the last 12 years to modernize their sirens and increase the numbers from 73 to 113 with a state-of-the-art control center for them. A few years ago, Salina’s siren upgrade was the focus of a video we did for Severe Weather Awareness Week:
Over here, high winds. Over there, tornadoes. This other place, well…who knows?
A final note that is important to know about Outdoor Warning Devices that surprises a lot of people is that there are no set rules as to when or who sets them off. Kansas is blessed with some outstanding Emergency Managers in many counties that take their jobs and responsibilities very seriously and don’t sound them off unless they perceive there is a truly life-threatening situation at hand. Thus, some counties set them off for “high end” severe thunderstorm warnings and some do not. Some only set them off when the NWS has issued a tornado warning while others will set them off whenever a reliable member of their law enforcement reports one. In some less-populous counties, the responsibility to activate them falls on the overworked, lone dispatcher on duty!
For a fascinating look into just how the warning system failed the public in Joplin (a city where the emergency manager sounded the siren for high winds), read When the Sirens Went Silent by Mike Smith. [ed. note: this is NOT an affiliate link]
The Bottom Line
So what do meteorologists and weather enthusiasts rely on? The answer is all of the above and more. Everyone should have multiple ways of getting important information, be that a message from the president during a time of crisis or a severe weather warning. Personally, I rely on my own eyes and personal radar analysis first, social media second, cell phone third, local TV fourth, local radio fifth, weather radio sixth and outdoor warning devices seventh. Seven layers of safety for me and my loved ones. I believe everyone should have at least three.
One final thing that has popped up more in recent years is personal responsibility. Early in my career it was pretty rare to come across someone that could TRULY say that they didn’t know a bad storm was coming. Now we hear it with almost every storm. Why? People seem to have shifted their thought process from one of personal responsibility to entitlement of being spoon-fed information. In my opinion, this is a dangerous social shift that will, unfortunately, probably take a major, global scale disaster to ever swing back the other way.
So, in this Severe Weather Awareness week 2021, do an assessment of all of the methods you have for getting severe weather and make sure you have multiple lines of defense for you and your family!