With the devastation of the tornado that struck Greensburg last year still fresh in their minds, it's not surprising that local residents have a heightened concern about tornados and tornado warnings.
Those concerns came to the surface last week when strong straight-line winds hit the Lawrence area and a tornado touched down briefly near Clinton Lake. Although the storm did significant damage, the county did not sound its tornado sirens because it never had confirmation of the tornado that was on the ground for about two minutes before lifting back into the clouds just after 1 a.m. Friday morning.
The fact that the sirens weren't sounded has drawn criticism and prompted plans to review the county's siren policy. Reviewing the policy is a good move, but residents should be aware that deciding when to sound the tornado sirens can be a difficult balancing act.
As the policy now stands, the tornado sirens are a signal that a tornado is on the ground and that people should take shelter immediately. It is a sign of imminent danger and shouldn't be ignored. If the sirens are sounded every time conditions are favorable for tornados or damaging winds, it is far more likely that they would become like the boy who cried "wolf" so often that he was ignored when an attack eventually occurred.
Modern weather forecasting offers ample warning of potentially dangerous storms. The county's emergency sirens aren't intended to replace television and radio weather reports; they are intended to alert residents to dire weather conditions.
Perhaps the county's review will come up with alternative ways to use the sirens. Maybe shorter blasts could be used to warn of dangerous storms while longer blasts signify a tornado on the ground. A tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service might be considered sufficient to blow sirens even without a confirmed sighting.
Whatever is decided, it is important not to overuse the siren system. While some residents might like to hear the sirens whenever there is any hint of danger, such frequency could encourage residents to ignore or react slowly to the sirens when a deadly situation does arise. The county's storm sirens are only useful if people pay attention to them.
The county was fortunate that no one was injured in last week's storms, and reviewing the county's siren policy is a good step. However, residents should remember that while the tornado siren system is an important public safety tool, it will lose its effectiveness if it is overused.