Do we need tornado sirens for motivation?

Tornado damage in Smithfield, NY (NWS photo)
Tornado damage in Smithfield, NY (NWS photo)

I’ve wondered for a while whether tornado sirens (or, as emergency managers often call them, “outdoor warning sirens”) have become so ingrained in our culture over the past several decades that people instinctively treat them as our most important (if not our only) method to receive warning of impending weather danger.

Lately, I’ve seen evidence that this is unfortunately the case. It would be unfortunate, because such sirens were never intended to provide warning to people who are indoors and because many, many communities (including the Indiana community in which I live) don’t have enough warning sirens to assure that every person in the community can hear them, even when outdoors.

Why do I think our culture nonetheless puts too much stock in tornado sirens? Here’s one case in point: CBS Evening News reporter Vinita Nair did a report July 9 about a rare New York State tornado that killed four people in the town of Smithfield. In part of her report, Nair said, “Smithfield doesn’t even have tornado sirens.” What prompted that line in her report? I submit that its inclusion indicates how widely-held is the belief that tornado sirens are a primary way to receiving warning of impending danger.

Here’s more evidence to consider. At the 11th International Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) Conference in University Park, Pennsylvania, last May, seven authors presented “Tweeting and Tornadoes,” an academic paper that examines the content of geo-located Twitter messages (tweets) sent on the microblog social network during the Moore, Oklahoma tornado of May 20, 2013. Among other findings, the authors noted that the volume of tweets spiked significantly when tornado sirens became audible to Twitter users (see the graph below).

Figure from Blanford, et. al., "Tweeting and Tornadoes"
Figure from Blanford, et. al., “Tweeting and Tornadoes”: Temporal distribution of
tweets with at least one keyword (gray bars) (e.g., ‘storm’, ‘weather’, ‘take/ing cover’, ‘shelter’, ‘pray’, ‘emergency’, ‘red cross’, ‘help’ and ‘devast’, ‘destruct’, and ‘donat’ in relation to tweets containing the keyword ‘tornado’ (blue area) or ‘siren’ (black line) and how these related to the tornado event (red bar). Tweets were summarized for each hour.

The authors write, “Sirens in Moore were sounded six times with the initial siren occurring shortly after the first NWS tornado warning was sent (14:41hr) with the final warning at 15:20hr (Kuligowski et al., 2013). The first mention of sirens also begins at 14:41hr (N=22 tweets in 4 minutes) with tweets such as ‘Sirens going off now!! Take cover…be safe!’, ‘Sirens sirens sirens. Becoming so real’, and ‘If u hear a tornado siren, uve got 6-8 minutes…’”

The tweet that included the words “becoming so real” particularly got my attention. It almost seems as if the writer of that tweet did not begin to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, until she heard sirens. And it came from a person who was obviously connected to the Internet (either via computer or smartphone) and therefore had at her disposal official tweets from NWS and other information sources to enhance situational awareness before sirens sounded.

If, in fact, sirens have become so ingrained in our culture that we need them for motivation when severe weather threatens, I consider that a dangerous trait. Too many of us will never hear a siren, even if a tornado is about to destroy the home we’re in. Even a person who lives close to a siren will likely never hear it just before a non-tornadic severe thunderstorm drops a tree on his house and kills him (because many, if not most, communities don’t sound tornado sirens for severe thunderstorms without imminent tornado threats).

How do we remove tornado sirens from their strongly held homes deep in our collective psyche? Perhaps we can’t. But it sure wouldn’t hurt if trusted news sources and public officials continue to share information with their audiences and constituents about the shortcomings of tornado warning sirens, the necessity of having alternative means of receiving warnings and the importance of reacting immediately and appropriately to those warnings, regardless of whether a tornado siren is audible. Likewise, if you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you’re the severe weather expert in your family, circle of friends, church, etc. You can help to, by spreading the word in your community.

The sound of a tornado siren is so motivating and our response to the sound is so emotional, that the Indianapolis Colts NFL football team uses that sound to rile up the fans during home games at Lucas Oil Stadium. We might never change the emotion associated with that sound. But perhaps we can help protect our communities by doing what we can to build up the importance of other warning methods.

If we’re successful, perhaps someday, the sound of a weather alert radio’s alarm will prompt a tweet like, “Weather radio sounding off. This is becoming so real.”

What do you think? Add your comments to this post (there’s a link right under the title).

5 thoughts on “Do we need tornado sirens for motivation?”

  1. relying solely on warning sirens is completely irresponsible in this day and age. The sirens that most communities have weren’t originally even installed for tornado warnings, they were put in place for air raid/nuclear attack warning during the cold war under the civil defense program. To this day most sirens still fall under the fiscal authority of the local Emergency Management Agencies which replaced the old Civil Defense programs. I’ll list the reasons why people should not reply on just sirens

    *Sirens do not always work properly.
    I know personally of sirens that can not be activated remotely via radio (DTMF commands), and instead someone has to physically drive to the site the siren is located, and manually flip a switch. To bring these sirens to remote activation capability would cost around $10,000 each and many communities do not have the funds to do this.

    * Sirens do not cover 100% of the population of the counties jurisdiction. In order for 100% coverage there would have to be one siren every other mile in a grid pattern for the entire county.

    * Sirens don’t work well when one is indoors unless your house is within 1/2 mile of the tornado and your windows are open. Out in rural areas if you have an area with dense tree coverage the problem is magnified as the leaves deaden the sound.

    * these days even if people DO hear the sirens most time they are ignored I saw proof of this first hand in November 2002 during the Veterans Day outbreak, there was an F4 touched down in Van Wert Ohio, that same tornado crossed through 5 counties before dissipating in my county 6 miles from where I am currently sitting. I was finishing my shift at my old job in another town when the Van Wert warning was issued. I heard the alert go off over the radio in my car, I jumped in and headed to town to run the Skywarn net. As I was driving through town the sirens were going off. Were people heading to shelter? No they were out walking their dogs, playing ball, washing their cars, tinkering in their flower beds.

    * Most people these days have smart phones, there are free apps they can get for emergency notification, weather radios are inexpensive at around $35.00 each there is no excuse for any household to not have at least one, hell I have 3 at my house one in living room, one in bedroom, and one in office.

    The main problem is people not taking personal responsibility for their own safety. I am so damn sick and tired of hearing people say “There was no warning!” The only time there is no warning is if it is a sudden popup or a tornado associated with a QLCS.

    Another beef i have associated with this are the boneheads who complain when their local broadcast station cuts into some stupid crap TV show with weather coverage that just may save their lives. Do they pay heed to the TV Meteorologists warnings to take shelter? No instead they ***** because they didn’t get to see which crap singer made it to next level of “Let’s make some poor slob the next One Hit Wonder”

    As someone who works in Emergency Management, and who has made a career out of working to protect lives and property, I have seen a lot of people suffer loss of property and even injured or killed due to weather, Most of the times the injuries/fatalities could have been avoided or lessened if they paid heed to the warnings that ARE available (and not just via sirens).

  2. Sirens VS. Weather Radios for notification.

    let’s do some simple math, for this I’ll use the population and statistics for my county

    My county has a population of 29,000, there are 419 square miles. the population density is 68/square mile.

    A new warning siren costs around $25,000 this includes RF link to the 911 dispatch and EOC for DTMF activation. This does NOT include maintenance costs.

    to cover the county we would need a siren for every 2 square miles (to account for trees and terrain audio absorption) so roughly 210 sirens 210 x $25,000 = $5,250,000. I wonder how many weather radios we could buy for $5,250,000, let’s see at roughly $35.00 each $5,250,000 / $35.00 = 150,000.

    Well golly gee wiz we could buy 2 weather radios for each household, plus one for each place of business, school building and place of worship and still have money left over. Which do you think would be more fiscally responsible?

  3. You are “preaching to the choir” and I am in Central Oklahoma. I am a Tornado Ecologist. They were “outmoded” 20 yrs ago. There is so many platforms that give warning – and more accurately and precise – then sirens are getting into 10th place. Which mean that I would put sirens 10th is telling people – primary or secondary! It ranks – and I have surveyed it like 9 or 10 times in the late 90s to early 10s – and it ranks below NOAA Weather Radio, getting phone calls, and third-party info. It is prone to technical difficulties, having a person(s) involved, environmental factors, and on and on. More power to you and I will back you up and I am going to use these articles on Oklahoma Emergency Management Assoc.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I wonder if you think sirens are too ingrained in our culture for society to ever allow their demise.

      1. It takes a long TIME. The media is really not good at this. They think – and someone talked off it in the comments – that they think they know everything and they do not, at all. There wrong to begin with and they then criticize the town or EM or whatever to “shot them down” on that is wrong too. You got to get the the respect of a TV and/or newspaper person(s) to do your bidding for the EM not getting sirens, and EM for getting any number of items that will do much better that Tornado Sirens, and spell-out the errors of sirens. I said it in my PhD Dissertation…Sirens are WWII era warnings systems that spend money. And area closed to here got $2.5M for sirens even though I appeared in front of a council meeting and said that you can by every home owners and every business a NOAA Weather Radio, we get two sirens for the golf course and baseball fields and the soccer fields, and repair on at the lake/park and show everyone how to get apps (91% cellular customers – and it is in the poor too) and they dismissed it right off the bat. We would have $1.3M left. So IT is hard.

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