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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  • by Bob Location: Hallie on May 2, 2012 at 08:35 AM
    An old guy was driving down the road and a policeman pulled him over. Officer said "Did you know your wife fell out of the car about five miles back?" The guy says "Oh thank god, I thought I had went deaf!"
  • by kim Location: hallie on May 2, 2012 at 08:23 AM
    The siren system was first started to be a warning system in case of nuclear attack. Somehow this whole waste of money mutated into a weather warning system and now it just seems to have a life of its own. Now we have so many sirens screaming that nobody even listens. And they want to test it every day and tell us it is just a test. We should all have weather radios so they can wake us up at 3:00 AM to tells us it is a test. How long do you think that will last until it is disabled? And sometimes you can actually hear the sirens above the roar of the tornado! I have this system called look out the window. Or if I am outside, I open my eyes. Now we are going to have to listen to a dam siren once a month. How long before we ignore that one?
  • by East Hill Location: E.C. on Apr 30, 2012 at 05:53 AM
    Another part of the problem is the County either blows all of the sirens, from EC to Fairchild for severe wx. warnings. It can be crystal clear on one end of the county, while hail and high winds on the other end. The technology is available to only sound select sirens by quadrant or even individually. Let's catch up with technology and adjust how we activate the sirens.
    • reply
      by Dave on Apr 30, 2012 at 03:14 PM in reply to East Hill
      I agree with you 100%.
  • by Gary Location: ec on Apr 29, 2012 at 07:19 PM
    i hear the system test so often on the radion i now turn it off soon as it starts- i have eyes and can look outside all by myself
  • by The Boy Who Cried Location: Lupine on Apr 29, 2012 at 05:24 PM
    Overuse of the warning system renders it less effective, but there are too many sheep that need to be told when it's heavily raining. I say leave the sheep to their own demise and sound the alarm only when danger is imminent.
  • by another spotter Location: rice lake on Apr 29, 2012 at 02:33 PM
    Fully half of the people I work with don't know the difference between a watch and a warning. All the sirens and tones in the world don't mean much if people keep themselves totally ignorant about severe weather.
  • by joshua Location: eau claire on Apr 29, 2012 at 09:52 AM
    who paid for the studies of how outdoor horns are confusing people? what a waste of money. does anyone look to the skies anymore and say, "it looks like it is going to rain, maybe i should get inside now"? Common sense goes a long way!!!!
    • reply
      by Anon 2 on Apr 29, 2012 at 03:51 PM in reply to joshua
      Totally agree. Unfortunately, common sense goes out the window in the nanny state.
  • by Becca on Apr 29, 2012 at 08:42 AM
    I agree with Spotter......I feel that people need to start paying more attention to the warnings that are issued, and take them seriously. People complain about the sirens going off in severe thunderstorm warnings. Have they forgotten that you can be injured or killed in a severe thunderstorm? Lightning, hail, and floods kill people every year, and that doesn't even count the tornadoes that can also kill people. Severe thunderstorms can drop tornadoes with little or no warning also, and that is something that people should be taking seriously when a warning is issued. We all need to use common sense and pay attention to the skies around us, as well as watch the t.v. and listen to the radio for the latest information when a warning is issued, simple as that!!
  • by RR on Apr 27, 2012 at 01:08 PM
    Ditto, thanks John.
  • by John Location: Chippewa Falls on Apr 27, 2012 at 12:37 PM
    One problem I see is the over use of the warning tone on the radio and TV. I seems like the national weather service will tone out for almost any storm. People get desensitized and become complacent to the warnings.
    I believe the weather service should interupt programming only for emergencies that life threatening such as tornadoes and extreme thunderstorms.
    • reply
      by ec girl on Apr 27, 2012 at 01:29 PM in reply to John
      From what I see, the only times that they interrupt is during tornadoes/severe thunderstorms.
      • reply
        by J on Apr 29, 2012 at 06:40 PM in reply to ec girl
        regular interruptions for warning in my experience
    • reply
      by spotter on Apr 27, 2012 at 01:53 PM in reply to John
      While I see your point here, I am one to disagree. If the NWS thinks a warning is needed, they will send out the warning. The problem I see is too many people who get fussy that they can't watch their television shows, and gripe when a cut in is done. Storms can be very unpredictable, and the rate they can intensify and drop tornadoes at a moments notice is too high for local news stations to be picky about which one to interrupt for. After seeing what tornadoes can do, especially the last couple of years, I would think people would take every warning seriously and then be thankful if it ended up not as bad what was initally expected. If a person decides to ignore a warning, it isn't anyone's fault but their own.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Apr 29, 2012 at 08:21 AM in reply to spotter
        Perfect response. We'll never get storm prediction perfect and weather people HAVE to be on the side of caution. If someone doesn't take a warning seriously then it's their own problem!
    • reply
      by anonymous on Apr 29, 2012 at 05:41 AM in reply to John
      I agree with you 100%. Many years ago a siren going off meant 'head for shelter.' Then E.C. County decided they would sound it for other possible weather issues and it became diluted. Now when it goes off I still see people riding their bikes, playing in the parks, anything but looking for shelter.
    • reply
      by Chris on Apr 29, 2012 at 08:20 AM in reply to John
      Well the problem is that by the time there is an actual tornado on the ground, it's too late in many cases. People want 100% accuracy for warnings and get angry when their is a false alarm. If they actually were to stop "over using" these alarms, the one time there is a tornado there would be public outrage and I'm sure you would not be happy about it either.
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