The Siren Mentality

| October 29, 2010 @ 5:48 pm | 25 Replies

This is what is going to kill more Alabamians than anything else in future tornado outbreaks.

For some reason, it seems like people in our state are born with the notion that you should hear an outdoor warning siren before every tornado. After almost any severe weather event, our folks in the newsroom will interview somebody that says “I never heard the siren” before the tornado arrived. The national media, generally based in New York or the West Coast, typically are clueless about the warning process and love these sound bites.

Quite frankly, if it was up to me, all of the outdoor warning sirens were be taken down and put out of service. That way, you KNOW you will never hear one.

The truth is that sirens are horribly ineffective at reaching people inside a building, whether it be a home, office, church, or school. And, even their outdoor range is very limited.

Sirens were a product of the Cold War, when we had the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, or Cuba. It was a great idea in 1955, but this is 2010, and we have the technology to put these things to bed.

Yes, for now, the best solution is a NOAA Weather Radio. The new models are digital, which means you can select the counties for which the alarm sounds. Every Alabama home and business needs one.

But, we are rapidly moving into a time when technology will pass Weather Radio by. You can get warnings on your phone (cell or home) with services like WeatherCall, and apps are being developed that offer warnings on your phone based on GPS location information.

The bottom line is this… never, and I mean never, rely on an outdoor warning siren to let you know a tornado is coming. Have a working NOAA Weather Radio receiver programmed properly in your home, and have WeatherCall or a similar service active for your phone. Getting the warning does save lives during tornado outbreaks, and it is time for the siren mentality to end.


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James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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  1. Dave says:

    Is there a way to get a simple text message to a cell phone for weather warnings?

  2. Jeffrey White says:

    James, I will agree with you on this. Of course I have so many different things going off at my house (cell phone has a NOAA program, Volunteer UHF radio, NOAH weather radio and usually 2 or 3 streams on the internet if active weather). But I will say this for the new one in Sycamore. It gets in the house JUST FINE. I have never heard anything like it before, but the EMA can talk over it as clear as a bell ringing and it sounds like “god is talking” from above even inside with the TV on. Then the siren part is deafening. But the other day when I was out inn the field taking pictures of the wall cloud, the storm was passing when the voices came across.

  3. Kevin says:

    Us older folks grew up on these sirens,due to lack of any other methods of warnings.But I,like you,James,think it is time to put them in the past.I have one within a mile of my house,and rarely ever hear it.The weather radio will certainly get my attention,though.And it DOES do it’s job,and that means alert me of everything that happens.But I NEVER turn it off,because you never know when the warning is for you!

  4. Kay says:

    I have never checked Weathercall, but I have texts from the Weather Channel everyday. Daily weather, severe weather, you can sign up how ever you want to!!

  5. Dustin says:

    I think of sirens now as more of a tradition than an actual effective way to warn people.

  6. Jay says:

    Yes, weather radios are good *but* unless you hear the voice narrative with it and you hear just the alarm you don’t know which part of a county the warning is for. When I hear the alarm I just quickly switch over to the teevee to get further info. Many times the alarm has gone off because it’s a warning for Jefferson county and it’s for the southern part of the county which is not helpful if you live in the northern or another part of the county.

    You James have had to clarify this situation on many occasions.

  7. Alison M says:

    If you are indoors all the time – NOAA is the way to go.
    I think that the NOAA radios have a long way to go to get
    people to use them and not turn them off like an alarm clock.

    If a text message is a valid warning, so is a siren. If seeing a message on your TV screen is a valid warning, so is a siren. If having a NOAA radio go off inside your house is a valid warning, so is a siren.

    For me, I’m rarely indoors, so a NOAA is not better than the siren.

  8. Travis K says:

    The way automobile technology is trending, GPS systems will be standard on all new automobiles. When will the weather service begin enhancing the gps maps to include radar and/or warned areas. This would be extremely helpful for motorists driving through that have no clue what’s going on.

  9. hayes says:

    i have to agree with you alison. i work outside and the sirens are just one necesary part of warning the public. the issue here is NOT the sirens, but educating people to be alert on days when severe weather is an issue….however the mode. i live in calhoun county and i am grateful for the EMA warning system we have. sirens even sound for approaching severe thunderstorms which is also helpful when working outdoors….my main concern being lightning.

    no one should rely on one mode for severe weather warnings. cellphones, radio, tv, and outdoor sirens AND a “stay tuned” approach should all be used collectively.

  10. Louis Bohorfoush says:

    I think sirens have their place in the overall warning system. However, EVERYONE needs a SAME equipped weather radio. I cringe when one of my coworkers tells me, “I have the Weather Channel.”
    I have always wondered why the Federal Govt. does not require all car radios to be able to tune in the weather radio frequencies. Back in the 70’s, I had a $10 adapter on the radio in my old Datsun that tuned the weather radio frequencies. It should at least be an option.

  11. Alison M says:

    Agree !

  12. Richie says:

    I’m on the fence on this one. I think the alarms serve a purpose, but the sirens when the star ladies come out really let you know when it’s time to break out the wallet.

  13. db says:

    Where i work, we don’t hear the tornado sirens. My husband calls me. Our admin officer does have a weather radio and she will let us know. PS: We had 2 inches of rain early in the week and 1 inch the other night. Every tree, shrub and plant looks sooooo much better! I have some pretty pink mums now and my pink camellia should bloom soon. Have a good weekend!

  14. Mary says:

    James, did you get criticized for something related to this last outbreak?

    Do you really mean “Quite frankly, if it was up to me, all of the outdoor warning sirens were be taken down and put out of service. That way, you KNOW you will never hear one.” Or were you being sarcastic?

    Is your criticism leveled at the goofy media who pounce on stunned people and ask ridiculous questions?

    I don’t understand your intensity.

    I hope you mean that people should have a radio even if they live and work next door to a siren, that they should carry a radio with them when they’re out, and always subscribe to free notification services no matter what.

    What I read just didn’t have context. Maybe we need our Congresspersons to get some money for a study to see if sirens save lives in Alabama? Maybe they don’t! If the money could be better spent some other way, let the data collection commence!

    Can’t make people get out of trailers when it’s dangerous to be in one. All the sirens, weather training, weather radios, free notification services, and technology in the world won’t stop most people from doing what they want whenever they want to do it. And most assuredly it won’t stop reporters from asking questions about hearing the siren!

    If people jumped you because of four tornado touchdowns on a day when severe weather wasn’t highly emphasized ahead of time, well, those people need to learn some good old-fashioned LOOK OUT THE WINDOW weather observation techniques. I know some. J. B. Elliott probably knows a zillion.

    James Spann and Co are not the Weather Police. You couldn’t make people do right no matter what, James. And I’m sorry it’s so personal. You work so hard, all of you do. Weather is not your fault nor is it your fault what people do or don’t do, reporters included.

    There simply comes a point in time when people have to be allowed to do themselves in. People absolutely have the choice.

  15. Kyle says:

    You tell em James!

    I agree with you on the fact that no one should rely on an outdoor siren when they are inside, but with that being said I believe outdoor sirens do serve a vital role in the warning process. I believe, as someone else stated above, the answer lies in education. How many times have you been outside at an event, have you grabbed your phone and noticed you had one, two, or several missed calls or messages? I know it happens to me all the time. So the notifications on your mobile device are only as good as your ability to hear the device.

    I live in the city of Pelham, where we are blessed with an abundance of outdoor sirens. Last time I checked we have 29! Just in our city limits alone, thus depending on terrain, each can be heard for several miles. I know several are placed at or near a location where large groups of people gather outside, like the city parks and Verizon wireless music center. Others are placed in high density residential areas and industrial parks, so in Pelham, there is a very good possibility you can hear a warning siren inside a house, I know I can. I don’t rely on the sirens when I am home, and neither should anyone else. I have a weather radio, and I agree with you that being the best mode of warning inside a dwelling.

    Siren technology, just like everything else, is also evolving. There are software programs out there now that uses the NWS polygons to activate the sirens covering the affected areas and leaving the other non affected silent. Those software packages would have little use in a city like Pelham due to its relatively small area, but Jefferson County would benefit from them for sure. Education plays a role also. I got this off the city of Pelham’s web site: “If the sirens activate due to severe weather, tune to your local television or radio station to learn the specifics of the emergency. Please do not call our emergency switchboard (911) unless you have an emergency.” That’s what I do. I watch you James, always have, and always will! People need to be taught the purpose of an OUTDOOR siren and what its primary purpose is. All technology is imperfect, whether it be wireless, sirens, radio or TV. All are subject to disruption, malfunction, or delays, so having multiple sources of information is wise.

  16. Sue says:

    I love weather information so I’m usually at the TV and computer and know where and when it starts happening. However, this past Tuesday I was on the back side of nowhere in rural SE Morgan Co with my newest and greatest cell phone that didn’t work and Hunts TV station was simulcasting… that old fashioned radio served just fine as the storm was way North of me at that time til I got back into civilization and home. Technology nor sirens work in every part of our State, common sense must prevail, if necessary, out of the car lying flat cover my head and prayer…

  17. No Mary, we do NOT need to get our Congress persons to spend money on another study! Total waste of tax payers money.

    Folks need to be responsible for their actions. Many folks would take no action even if James called them and said a tornado would be at their house in 5 minutes.

    I live in West Trussville near downtown and trust me, the siren is so loud at my house it would wake up the dead.

    About 10 years ago, the weather radio went off at 3:30 AM for an ice storm WATCH 12 hours later. I don’t have the radio any more.

    Bottom line….. Personal responsibility and common sense is the only thing required.

  18. It has been widely published that the current sirens have a range of only slightly over a mile and were never intended to be audible from indoors. Sound decays with distance according to the inverse square law of -6 dB/doubling the distance, plus a frequency dependent loss known as atmospheric absorption, in which sounds lose x dB/1000 feet at a given frequency. This loss is proportional to the frequency. A loss of 1 dB/1000 feet is typical for a frequency of 500 Hz. The frequency spectrum of most current warning sirens contain frequencies well above this. I offer a better solution.

  19. Jerry D says:

    I receive watches and warnings from the NWS via text message and I’m also a trained spotter and from the time that Talladega and Calhoun Counties came under a tornado warning on Tuesday it took about 4-5 minutes for the sirens to sound. If I were waiting on a siren to sound and there had been a tornado on the ground close by I might have been in serious trouble. If you don’t have a weather radio, get one. If you have a cell phone subscribe to some form of text alert. Don’t wait on an outdoor siren to warn you of a dangerous storm.

  20. Brian in Hoover says:

    James, the warning sirens still serve an important purpose in warning people of tornado warnings. People that are outdoors still need to be made aware. I can understand your point on how people indoors should not depend on them, but your statement here, “Quite frankly, if it was up to me, all of the outdoor warning sirens were be taken down and put out of service.”, is going too far. You can make your point without putting down the important purpose that they DO serve.

  21. Jerry D says:

    Brian, what purpose do the sirens serve if the delay time is 5 minutes? If the storm is moving fast enough by the time they do go off its to late. Besides if the weather is bad enough there shouldn’t be anyone outside in the first place. At sometime commonsence has to take over. Its all about how long it takes for a person to press a button on a console in an EMA office and the relay time it takes for the signal to reach each siren. Sure for those who might be outside it serves a purpose, but I agree with James on this one.

  22. Matt Graves says:

    Wow, thank you Spann for a bold and poignant blog! I was rather dismayed at what I saw here at UAH the other day. People did indeed base their decisons on when the sirens sounded and ended, and what may have been worse, the sirens sounded for warnings that did not affect Huntsville at all but whose “polygon” tracks clipped other parts of the county. So that kind of lulls people to sleep. Everybody needs to get on the same page, and people need to be more aware of very basic severe weather safety definitions and guidelines. Several people I talked to the other day had no idea we had been under a tornado watch, much less one labeled “particularly dangerous situation.” If we’re going to keep these sirens, they need to at least be coordinated with the warning products the National Weather Service is actually issuing, and . . . (sigh) . . . sometimes it just feels like a big mess. And it could definitely cause some loss of life. If people aren’t even clear on how to get the warning, how can we expect them to act on it?

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