By Kevin Kelley
Mayor Dennis Clough has said the decision on whether the city installs tornado sirens will be made on their effectiveness, not their cost.
But there seems to be no consensus on the effectiveness of warning sirens, which were first installed during World War II to warn of air raids and later used to warn of tornadoes. Policies on their usefulness, even standards on when they should be activated, are lacking at the national and, often, state level, with local jurisdictions left to make their own decisions on whether an investment on a siren system is justified. Most experts on emergency management say no single method of warning should be relied upon exclusively.
Cuyahoga County decided against installing tornado sirens years ago and is in the process of implementing a mass notification system that sends alerts via telephone, text messages and e-mails, said Walter Topp, administrator of the Cuyahoga County Office of Emergency Management.
Topp notes that sirens sometimes can’t be heard if one is indoors. In addition, he said, sirens don’t provide specific information and can be expensive. If sirens are tested too often, residents will find them annoying and tune them out, he said. Topp said the best device for receiving severe weather warnings is a NOAA weather radio. Such radios receive transmissions 24 hours, seven days a week from the National Weather Service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
However, Franklin County, which includes Columbus, installed 14 new sirens in May, bringing the county’s total to around 200, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The Ohio Emergency Management Agency does not have a policy stance on tornado sirens, according to Tamara McBride, a public affairs official with the agency.
“We encourage communities to offer residents a variety of warning and notification systems in which to communicate,” McBride told West Life.
Nor is there any nationwide requirement for them, she said.
“Siren policy is local and varies from place to place,” McBride said. “Remember, outdoor sirens are for outdoor use. Everyone should have ways to receive warnings besides sirens.”
However, McBride said that state emergency management preparedness grants and homeland security grant dollars can be utilized for the purchase and installation of outdoor warning sirens.
The agency does not track which, or how many, communities in the state have operating tornado sirens, she said.
The National Weather Service does not have a position on tornado sirens either, said Gary Garnet, the warning coordination meteorologist at the agency’s Cleveland office.
“We issue the warnings and the local communities set the policy regarding warning dissemination,” Garnet told West Life. “Our position is that it is good for a community to have multiple ways to alert the citizens, but we do not have a preference to the vehicles used to accomplish that.”
Critics of sirens note they can fail, as happened during a tornado warning in January in Spring Hill, Tenn., due to a broken wire, according to the Columbia Daily Herald.
A post-storm assessment by the National Weather Service of the tornado that killed 158 people and injured more than 1,000 in Joplin, Mo., in May 2011 stated some residents had begun tuning out tornado sirens. Some residents told the agency they wished the sirens had the ability to provide more specific information.
“Most importantly, the perceived frequency of siren activation in Joplin led the majority of survey participants to become desensitized or complacent to this method of warning,” the report said. “This suggests that initial siren activations in Joplin (and severe weather warnings in general) have lost a degree of credibility for most residents – one of the most valued characteristics for successful risk communication,” the report stated.
But Mike Smith, an executive at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and author of “When the Sirens Went Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community,” which details the Joplin tornado, said it’s not quite that simple.
An initial tornado warning was given and the sirens sounded in Joplin, Smith said, but no damaging storm hit the city. A short time later, a powerful storm cell did move toward Joplin, but the siren was not activated again until the rain-cloaked (difficult to see) tornado was already inflicting damage, he said.
The National Weather Service also misreported the location and path of the deadly storm, Smith told West Life.
“The last message (residents) got from radio and TV was ‘Joplin not included,’” said Smith, who also wrote “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather,” which tells how improvements in weather forecasting during the past five decades have saved lives.
Smith said residents in a community with tornado sirens will tune them out if they are used improperly.
“Testing them too often, or using them for severe thunderstorms, is a good way to use them so they’re tuned out,” Smith said.
Still, Smith, who is based in Wichita, Kan., said tornado sirens can be a worthwhile investment.
“I would encourage a community to invest in sirens with the caveat that they be used properly,” he said.