You can’t rely on sirens to wake you up during a tornado. The No. 1 way to ensure that you are aware of a tornado warning is by getting a weather radio.
The tornado siren is probably the sound that most of us relate to severe weather. We hear the siren go off; we take shelter. That is how it works, or how it is supposed to work.
Tornado sirens were originally installed as air-raid sirens during the 1950s and ’60s during the Cold War. The intent was to warn Americans of an impending Russian missile attack. Now, instead of alarming us of incoming nuclear bombs, they alert us to seek shelter for incoming tornadoes.
Counties in the United States have emergency management offices. These organizations focus on preparing for disasters, warning residents when disasters are happening and minimizing problems after a disaster happens.
Teri Smith, director of Douglas County Emergency Management, says storms are a top priority for the agency. When there is a threat of severe storms, its team has already been monitoring the situation and has deployed its storm spotters.
“You’ll always have at least five in here (the emergency management office), if not a couple more,” Smith said of their operation during a storm. “It’s very busy, but you know if you need to be talking to media, the National Weather Service, you need to do the voice alerts, sound the sirens, notify the state.”
Of course, sounding the sirens is what gives residents who aren’t already tuned into their television or weather radios the heads up that there is a threat of a tornado.
Behind the scenes
So, who actually sounds those sirens?
The Emergency Management department typically sounds the sirens. If staff members are not able to be in the office to sound the sirens, then they still have ways to get the alert out.
“There are multiple ways that the sirens can be activated. They can be sounded from the Emergency Management office, dispatch can activate the sirens or backup 911 can sound the sirens, so there are three different ways that we can do that,” Smith said.
Change in protocol
Each county has its own protocol on sounding the sirens, and the guidelines are set by their individual needs. Last spring, the emergency management protocol was changed in Douglas County after a storm swept through to the north. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning based on radar, but spotters couldn’t see a tornado or wall cloud from the storm. As a result, the sirens were not sounded when many people in the community thought they should have been.
“We had some public forums and asked for any input that the public had,” Smith said, “and we decided to go ahead and sound the sirens anytime the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning.”
In addition to that, Emergency Management officials also can sound the sirens if spotters or law enforcement officers see something that may be dangerous. They can sound those sirens even if there is not a warning issued by the NWS.
While the sirens are a great way to alert the public about the threat of a tornado, they are designed as outdoor warning systems. You can’t rely on sirens to wake you up during a tornado. The No. 1 way to ensure that you are aware of a tornado warning is by getting a weather radio.