Tag Archives: outdoor warning sirens

Last night’s tornado warning demonstrates why sirens aren’t your best alert source

The tweet above from Valparaiso University meteorology student and Fort Wayne resident Matthew Hayes points out something a lot of Allen County, Indiana residents probably don’t know. The county’s outdoor warning siren system is all-or-nothing. That means that when a tornado warning covers any part of the county, sirens sound throughout the county, which encompasses 660 square miles (making it the largest county by area in the state).

That’s what happened at about 9:06 p.m. last night, when the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning that included a small part of southwestern Allen County. A very small part:

tor_polygon
The Aug. 15, 2016 tornado warning included a tiny part of southwester Allen County, Indiana (the triangle indicated by the arrow.
Maps showing the complete tornado warning polygon, with and without radar data. At the time of the warning, the radar-indicated tornado was over the town of Andrews, west of Huntington, moving northeast at 25 mph.
Maps showing the complete tornado warning polygon, with and without radar data. At the time of the warning, the radar-indicated tornado was over the town of Andrews, west of Huntington, moving northeast at 25 mph. Click the image for a better view.

The Fort Wayne-Allen County Consolidated Communications Partnership center dutifully followed protocol and activated Allen County’s outdoor warning siren system. People throughout the county who were close enough to a siren would have heard it sound. Presumably, this  included people 26 miles away in Harlan, where the storm wasn’t forecast to travel. See a map of all Allen County’s sirens.  Remember, sirens are designed for outdoor alerting only, but people can sometimes hear them from inside their homes, if their homes are close enough to a siren.

Ironically, if anyone was in the small part of Allen County that the warning covered, it is unlikely they heard a siren. The nearest operating outdoor warning siren is at least four miles away, at the headquarters of the Southwest Allen County Fire Department on Indianapolis Road.

The outdoor warning siren nearest the warned area was at least four miles away, at the Southwest Allen County Fire Department station on Indianapolis Road.
The outdoor warning siren nearest the warned area was at least four miles away, at the Southwest Allen County Fire Department station on Indianapolis Road. Click the image to see a larger version.

So, last night’s tornado warning demonstrated two weaknesses of outdoor warning sirens as primary means of learning of such warnings:

  1. Outdoor warning sirens cannot be heard in many parts of Allen County, even by people who are outdoors.
  2. Sirens are often activated where warnings are not in effect.

What should you do? For geographic precision, your best bet is a good smartphone app, like Storm Shield or Weather Radio. These apps use your phone’s GPS to determine whether it is within the actual warning area. The next best thing is the Wireless Emergency Alerts that are built into  modern smartphones. As I explained in another blog post, the geographic precision of such alerts is imperfect, but it’s better than countywide, doesn’t require installing an app, and it’s “on” by default on modern smartphones.

When you’re home, weather alert radios provide very reliable alerts but have the disadvantage of alerting an entire county for any warning that includes any part of that county. At least weather radio alerts — unlike outdoor warning sirens — come with voice messages the explain what part of the county is affected.

The bottom line, as I’ve written before, is don’t rely on tornado sirens. Not hearing one does not mean you don’t need to take cover, because you might be in a place where it’s impossible to hear a siren. Hearing one does not necessarily mean you need to take cover, because your neighborhood siren might sound for a warning that doesn’t affect you. Find a better way to know if you are in danger!

Side note: Based on what I know about how the National Weather Service generates warnings, I highly suspect that the meteorologist who issued last night’s warning probably intended to keep the warning polygon out of Allen County entirely, but accidentally overshot the county line when drawing the warning polygon.

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.

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).

Better alternatives to tornado sirens

Photo of outdoor warning siren with superimposed text "For outdoor reception only"Earlier, I wrote a post titled, “Stop believing in tornado sirens.” I hoped it would help convince readers that the decades-old technology is not the best way to learn of severe weather threats.

Now, here’s a bit more about better alternatives.

Weather alert radios

Photo of weather radioIn the earlier post, I mentioned weather alert radios. There are several manufacturers and models. What you want is one that supports Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). It’s a system that allows weather radios to remain silent until a warning is issued for your own county. This means there’s never any reason to turn off the radio. One of the least expensive is the Midland WR120. I’ve seen it priced at under $35. It’s available at most Walgreens pharmacies, as well as other local retailers. There are plenty of other choices. Just do a search on Amazon or any other shopping website for “weather alert radio same.”

Smartphone apps

Logo for American Red Cross tornado appSmartphone apps are another option. They have the advantage of using the phone’s GPS to know where you are and alert you of warnings for that location, even when you’re away from home. Be sure to choose an app that make a loud enough noise to wake you. One free option is the American Red Cross Tornado App for iPhones and Android phones. I have not tried this app but its description indicates it sounds a loud siren when the National Weather Service issues a tornado or severe thunderstorm warning.

Sample warning as displayed by Weather Radio app. Image provided by WDT
Sample warning as displayed by Weather Radio app. Image provided by WDT

I have used Weather Decision Technologies’ Weather Radio app. It’s also available for iPhones and Android phones but costs $4.99 (down from an earlier price of $9.99).

I’ve also tested the Storm Shield App from the E.W. Scripps Company. It’s also available for iOS and Android. Its price is $2.99.

Although they’re not free, both apps do much more than the free Red Cross app. For example, you can configure them to sound off for a variety of warnings, not just tornado warnings.

All three apps use the phone’s GPS to determine whether the phone is within the polygon that describes the specific warning area. If the phone is outside the polygon, the apps remain silent. This means you get no alarms for storms that might be in your county but will never affect you.

Wireless emergency alerts logoBy the way, if you have a new enough smartphone, it probably supports Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which means that even without installing an app, the phone will sound off when a tornado warning is issued for wherever you are. It depends on the device and the cell phone company. My old iPhone 4 did not support WEA, but the newer iPhone 4S does. Follow the link at the beginning of this paragraph to find out if your phone supports WEA.

I know of no other options that will wake you in the middle of the night. But during the daytime and evening when you’re still up, the following resources can be helpful:

Text messaging

Many local TV stations send subscribers text messages when the NWS issues weather warnings. Just visit the website of your favorite station to see what it offers.

Other websites also offer text messaging, some for free and some for a fee, including:

Not that if a storm destroys your nearest cell phone tower, that might keep you from getting text messages on time.

Local broadcast radio and television

If you know a watch has been issued, you can learn of warnings by keeping a radio or TV on and tuned to a local station. Most will automatically interrupt programming when the NWS issues a warning for their listening/viewing areas.

Social Media

Local broadcasters and the NWS often post news of weather warnings on Twitter and Facebook. Social media, however, should never be your primary source of warning information, because warnings might not appear promptly enough.

Know someone who could benefit from this information? Use the sharing buttons below to share it with your own social networks. Feel free to submit a comment if you have other suggestions for weather radios and/or other sources of severe weather information.