Americans risking their lives listening for sound they can’t hear

“There are millions of people across this country putting their lives on the line by listening for a sound they can’t hear.”

Relying on outdoor warning sirens is dangerous (photo of a siren)That’s my favorite line from a recent blog post by weather journalist Dennis Mersereau on “The Vane” blog.

Mersereau makes a strong case for a difficult change in mindset: relying on warning technology that’s more modern and reliable than the ubiquitous outdoor warning siren.

I’ve written about this topic myself. I’ve seen (as I imagine Mersereau has) more than one post-tornado report from the National Weather Service (NWS) that indicated victims failed to seek shelter after the NWS issued a warning, because they didn’t hear sirens. This has been true even for people who knew about the warning because they heard it on TV, saw it on Twitter, etc.

The main thesis of Mersereau’s post is absolutely correct: Communities will save a lot more lives spending money on free NOAA Weather Radio receivers for citizens than in upgrading or installing outdoor warning sirens.

But despite that facts that Mersereau presents, the average citizen doesn’t see it that way.  You see, we have relied on outdoor warning sirens for so long (ever since the post-WWII re-purposing of air raid sirens — and that’s a long time) that they’ve become a strong tradition. I’d argue they’ve become an almost inextricable part of our culture.

As a case in point, (as I pointed out in my 2014 post linked above), I invite you to watch an Indianapolis Colts football game, where the stadium public address system often plays a warning siren sound effect. Why? Not because a storm is on the way, but because Colts staff members know that an emotional response to that sound is  ingrained in fans.

The fact that the Colts use that sound effect in that way is evidence that outdoor warning sirens have become a part of our collective psyche. That’s hard to fight.

More evidence comes from the vehement arguments that siren-lovers have posted in comments beneath Mersereau’s blog post. As Mersereau put it in a tweet to me, “People believe in their sirens like a religion.”

That, my friends, is the real problem.

It will take a lot of public education (like Mersereau’s blog post) over a significant period of time to change that.

In the meantime, citizens will continue to expect their elected officials to spend money on an outdated, ineffective warning technology.

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