The last time the emergency sirens went off in Douglas County, Jeff Stolz barely heard the sound over the music playing in his house.
Stolz, who’s lived about a block from one of the county’s outdoor sirens for three years, said if the tunes had been any louder he might not have heard them at all.
He’s not alone.
After an EF-5 tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., in late May, Stolz says he will be more cautious when the sirens sound.
He’ll check the media to “find out why they’re going off,” he said.
With this being storm season, it’s likely Douglas County residents haven’t heard the last of the emergency weather alert, if they’ve heard them at all. Teri Smith, director of Douglas County Emergency Management, said many people misunderstand the purpose of the sirens.
“It is intended for people who are outdoors,” Smith said. “It’s intended for people who are not able to access local media.”
Smith said the sirens shouldn’t be residents’ sole means of severe weather notification. She said it was important for people to be aware of the daily forecast and to have access to local weather information.
The operational sirens, of which the county currently has 35, are still an important notification tool. Sounded when the threat of a tornado is real, the sirens can serve as a first notice to seek shelter. The outdoor weather alert system can be used in a variety of ways. Individual sirens can be activated, or they can be turned on by specific zones or countywide.
Notification of severe weather can also come from a variety of sources. The National Weather Service, weather spotters and local law enforcement are all capable of calling in severe storm warnings that lead to activating the sirens.
For people like Aman Reaka, the sirens are simply a formality. A Douglas County trained weather spotter and Skywarn member for the past seven years, Reaka has seen his share of tornadoes. He’s seen funnel clouds drop over Clinton Lake, watched tornadoes move across Lawrence and De Soto, and he’s followed severe storms across the county, delivering the report resulting in the activation of the sirens on several occasions.
“By the time we hear them, it’s usually expected,” Reaka said. “If I don’t hear a siren, that’s when I get a bit nervous.”
To help ensure more residents are hearing the emergency warnings, the county recently approved the purchase of four new outdoor sirens, each of which costs about $20,000. The additional sirens will help cover more populated areas across the county.
Keeping the sirens in working condition is a task that a newer county system has helped streamline. Each morning a poll is conducted that lets emergency management staff know which sirens are operational and which are not. Notifications for outages are also sent to staff members’ smartphones and sirens have backup battery power in the event of lightning strikes, which Smith said don’t happen often.
Douglas County Emergency Management maintains a Facebook page and sends timely updates through its Twitter account to help keep residents aware and informed during severe weather. Smith said residents should be prepared, which includes owning a weather radio and having easy access to local weather media.
“We all need to have multiple ways to get the notifications,” Smith said. “It’s another way for us to get that information. That’s a true benefit in this community.”