It will probably go down as one of the most memorable Christmas Eve Eves, at least when it comes to the weather. During that late afternoon, there was a noise that would not be expected: a tornado siren. The National Weather Service issued the warning for Miami County after Doppler radar indicated a storm capable producing a tornado was coming in from Darke County. Upon further review, the storm that caused the warning actually caused a tornado just east of Arcanum. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but the weak tornado did cause property damage.
What made this particular storm event peculiar is that I heard the tornado siren go off five times. Yes, five times for one storm. After the storm, I did what every red-blooded Gen X’er would do: I went to social media to talk about the fact that the tornado siren went off five times. From the interactions I had, I learned that the sirens went off every three minutes and the last siren was an “all clear.” All of this is good information, but it left me feeling a bit confused.
Growing up, hearing the tornado siren was a pretty rare occurrence, other than the monthly Wednesday morning test. It seemed that back at Kyle School, we were taught that when a tornado warning was issued for our county, the dispatch center would turn on the sirens and we were to head to the basement. It seemed that growing up, there was just one blaring of the siren and that was it.
But, my, how times have changed. For one, the National Weather Service doesn’t issue county-wide warnings any more. A few years ago, the weather service went to issuing more location specific tornado warnings. The weather service has been doing this out west for years, which makes a lot of sense, when you think they have counties that are the size of entire states.
Perhaps you remember the late November storm of 2010. I remember being awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the tornado siren system. After I huddled the family in the basement, I was able to determine that the tornado warning that was issued for the county was for a small sliver of the eastern part of the county and mostly for Clark and Champaign counties. At the time, I thought that if there is a policy that states that if any portion of the county is under a tornado warning, then the sirens are activated. And that is a good policy when the entire county is placed under a warning. However, with the new process for issuing tornado warnings, I wondered if the policy needed updating. In my mind, it didn’t make sense to alarm residents to a storm in which there was no immediate threat.
And now, it appears that sirens are being activated at intervals when the tornado warning is in effect, which is ending with an “all clear” signal. I’d like to think I try to stay aware of these things, but I never remember when it was communicated to the general public that sirens will continually sound during a tornado warning.
Finally, it’s hard to distinguish the “all clear” signal when it sounds just like the civil defense siren system is going off again. Perhaps, the “all clear” signal can be sounded like short blasts, rather than one long, blaring sound?
I fully recognize that this is sounding more and more like a diatribe against that siren system, and it’s really not. We are blessed to live in a community that has a functioning system. During the economic downturn just a few years ago, many communities didn’t replace these aging systems due to the hefty price tag. Any community that puts citizen safety and security first deserves credit.
What I am saying is that there needs to be more public education on exactly how these sirens are going to be operated in the future. Citizens need to know what to expect when the sirens go off and what the criteria are for when they are activated. Perhaps, more importantly, residents need to know when the threat has passed.
My greatest fear is that with more and more sirens going off, the effectiveness of the system is going to suffer and the public will become immune to the urgent messages the sirens are meant to convey.
William (Bill) Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.