Tornado Sirens: Anyone Listening?

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When you think of the sounds of summer in Alabama, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s a barbecue or kids playing by the pool. Or, how about a summer thunderstorm? With these storms there’s sometimes another sound–tornado warning sirens. As WBHM’s Bradley George reports, the effectiveness of these sirens is a point of contention for weather forecasters and emergency management officials.

It’s a hollow, metallic sound-tornado sirens piercing the quiet of a Sunday afternoon in Homewood. But turn on the TV, and there’s FOX6 meteorologist James-Paul Dice telling you there’s no danger.

‘If you’re in southern Jefferson County, you are not in a threat. If you over toward Oak Grove, Bessemer you are not in a threat area. This is going to be northern Jefferson County.’

So this particular warning only applies to a tiny portion of Jefferson County. Yet all 650,000 residents hear the warning.

‘That’s a whole debacle within itself.’

ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann isn’t a fan of warning sirens and he let state emergency management officials know this when he addressed their convention a few years ago.

‘In my opinion, every siren in this state should be taken down and burned. Those things were a product of the Cold War back in the 50s and the 60s. They were designed to be sounded during these nuclear attacks.’

So far this year, the National Weather Service has issued 11 tornado warnings for Jefferson County. 11 times the warning sirens sounded county-wide, but not a single has touched down anywhere in the county. Allen Knipfher is the county’s Emergency Management coordinator. He says they have the technology right now to sound sirens only in a specific area where a tornado may touch down. But given the county’s past experience with severe weather–including a 1998 tornado that killed 32 people, he would rather err on the side of caution.

‘We’re still working the public as a whole to say, ‘remember when we would tell the whole county was under a warning.’ So, we’re working that issue, but there’s still some people who want to know every time the county is under a warning, they want to be notified.’

Knipfher says feedback on the sirens is split. Many of the people we talked to in Five Points South on a recent afternoon say they don’t mind hearing the sirens, even if bad weather is far away and there’s no threat. But there Peter Sloan worries the more times sirens go off and nothing happens, residents will become more complacent.

‘I would say it causes a bit more, I wouldn’t say panic, but distress. I think people tend to overreact to weather down in Birmingham.’

And in some Alabama counties, that’s a big concern.

‘My mentality of that is if the siren is going off, there’s a reason why.’

That’s Eddie Hicks. He’s director of Emergency Management for Morgan County, near Huntsville. The tornado sirens in Morgan County are activated only in the specific area under warning. No threat in your town? No siren. Hicks says other county Emergency Management directors don’t like that idea

‘A lot of my counterparts, the other emergency management directors, said they didn’t want to do that. My answer back is I didn’t want to be doing a false alarm for an area of the county that would never be affected by the storm.’

Part of the problem is the unreliable nature of tornado warnings. Even the National Weather Service’s meteorologists say most tornado warnings don’t translate into twisters on the ground. The weather service says it will take a giant leap in forecasting technology for warnings to be more effective and sirens more reliable with the ultimate goal-saving lives. For WBHM, I’m Bradley George.