You would think that any device used to inform people of an impending tornado would be a good thing. However, that’s not necessarily the case with tornado sirens. There is a major on-going debate about the use of sirens and how effective they really are.
First of all, you should understand the purpose of a tornado siren. Sirens are designed to warn people who are outdoors and are not near another source of weather information that a tornado warning is in effect. Typically, the sirens are installed by communities in public areas such as near schools and parks. They are NOT designed for people to hear inside a home or other building, which is a common misconception. Many times, even in nearby buildings, the sirens simply cannot be easily heard. Many people don’t understand they are for outdoor use only. There are other concerns as well. For instance, there is no nationwide standard for how and when the sirens are sounded. Each community decides how they will use them. Some sound them for severe thunderstorms in addition to tornado warnings. Some keep the sirens whaling during the duration of the warning while others sound them for a shorter period of time. Some cities may even activate the sirens multiple times for the same warning.
Some of these problems are highlighted in book, “When the Sirens Were Silent,” by Mike Smith. Mr. Smith details how tornado sirens might have led to confusion during the Joplin, Missouri, EF-5 tornado of last year which killed 158 people and is listed as America’s costliest tornado ever. According to Smith, residents of Joplin were inadvertently “being trained to NOT act when the sirens sounded,” due to siren overuse there. Too many times, the sirens sounded when no damaging weather or tornadoes occurred. This is a problem for more than just Joplin. Many people ignore sirens because of the combination of overuse and false alarms. The National Weather Service is currently researching how to reduce the rate of false alarms for tornado warnings. In addition, communities need to work on making sure residents take the sirens seriously. That begins, in my opinion, with using the sirens very sparingly and activating them only for tornado warnings and not for other severe weather events such as hail storms or damaging winds. Limited use helps to make the sound of a siren a novelty thereby making it more attention-getting. That alone can be a start. There’s even an argument by my friend James Spann from ABC 33/40 in Birmingham that tornado sirens are outdated and shouldn’t be used at all any more. While I think, for now, sirens have a place for warning the public of approaching tornadoes, there may come a day when warnings over cell phones render most other forms of warnings useless. We’re not quite there yet, though.
Certainly, the use of sirens is not a perfect science nor is predicting tornadoes. While we wait for technology to improve and while communities work on making their tornado sirens more effective, the position I stand firm on is for everyone to take all tornado warnings seriously. If you don’t, understand you’re rolling the dice.
If you live in an area with tornado sirens, do you act when you hear the sirens go off?