ASSIGNMENT 13: Sounding the alarm

By: Matt Hoffman Email
By: Matt Hoffman Email

Just after midnight on April 14th a tornado tore though the Oklahoma town of Woodward. Six people, three of them children, lost their lives. It was found out the next day that the town's sirens weren't in operation after being damaged by a storm.

Would that tragedy been avoided had the sirens been working? Well experts say that may not be the case, and we're sounding the alarm on sirens...

This time last year the deep south was in the middle of a multi-day tornado outbreak killing more than 300 people. Then the next month... Tragedy in the form of a tornado tore through Joplin...killing around 150 people.

After that questions had to be answered...

"why did we lose so many people. Yeah it was a huge tornado, but there must have been some other reasons why we had such a loss of life," explains Tod Pritchard who is the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the state of Wisconsin. The Joplin report found that most people got their first warnings from outdoor weather sirens.

"We've had them for generations now going back to the 50s and we've had a couple generations of people grow up and never knowing a time there wasn't a siren, and people still rely on them. Again going back to that Joplin study a vast majority of people got their first warning about the storm through the siren system."

But Pritchard says the sirens fell on deaf ears for many. The Joplin tornado report says as the storm approached, some people went to several restaurants to try to find one that was open, not realizing what was about to happen.

"A vast majority of people did not seek shelter when that first warning came out, and the other huge take away was that it took people between 2 and 9 confirmations of that warning before they did something," says Pritchard.

Meteorologists and emergency crews across the country are trying erase the myth that you're always going to hear a siren even indoors.

Pritchard explains, "if you're outside you have a chance of hearing them, but what if the wind is blowing another direction you might not be able to hear them. If you're inside you have a really limited chance of hearing them unless there's one right in your neighborhood."

Pritchard along with Eau Claire County emergency officials add that sirens don't tell you anything except something is going on.

"the siren system has a lot of major flaws to it," says Pritchard.

He says when the sirens sound and nothing bad happens...people tend to ignore sirens all together.

Stephanie Dosse of Eau Claire says she pays more attention to the sirens then when she was younger. "If i do hear it i definitely go and see what's going on but i can see especially younger generations not really taking heed to the warnings."

"They are designed to alert you to seek shelter and move inside and monitor broadcast media and find out more specifics of what's happening," explains Tom Hurley, Emergency Manager for Eau Claire County.

And what's happening when the sirens sound may depend on where you live, and who's running the sirens. Eau Claire county controls all sirens in the county like this one, but that may not be the case in your county or town. Some counties have several municipalities that have their own sirens and their own activation policies.

Do you know your county's policy? Here's a look at the counties where the sirens sound only for tornadoes. There are nine. There are 14 counties in the area where you will hear sirens for tornadoes and severe thunderstorm warnings. Eau Claire county started doing that after the devastating wind storm of 1980.

Policies vary widely with some counties and municipalities sound sirens for other things like fires, hazardous materials, and even curfews by using different audio tones. Some fire of the sirens for the whole county or only the areas that are within the polygon warning from the national weather service.

Experts say down the line, your cell phone may play as big of a role as the sirens. "We're going to have some of these new technologies that are going to help us that will be vastly improved to relying on a siren system," says Pritchard.

Emergency leaders i talked to say be responsible and be prepared because when the alarm sounds it may be too late.

April 27th marks one year since the Tuscaloosa tornado. Part of a multi-day tornado outbreak that would be one of the most devastating in U.S. history. This event would help spread awareness about the dangers of relying solely on outdoor warning sirens. Here's a look back in the Weather Notebook.

One year passes since the Super Outbreak of 2011

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