Sounding the Sirens: Are Tornado Sirens Obsolete Or Vital?

Sounding the Sirens: Are Tornado Sirens Obsolete Or Vital? (Image 1)
Sounding the Sirens: Are Tornado Sirens Obsolete Or Vital? (Image 1)

Greenwood resident Joe Carter has a family that knows what to do to stay safe when tornado sirens sound.

“The siren actually is fairly close to our house.  They know to automatically go downstairs, get in the middle of our hallway, and grab a blanket on the way past.”

It turns out that there others who have a different attitude about sirens.

After deadly tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri in 2011, studies were conducted to see how people reacted when warnings were issued for these storms.  The results showed that people will delay response to the sirens, or even ignore them completely, if they hear them too often.

Could this happen here?

In Spartanburg County, a warning issued in any part of the county causes sirens to sound everywhere…even in areas not in danger.  Studies have shown that it’s this type of siren use that can cause people to eventually stop listening.

However, changing this half-century old system to let it pinpoint certain areas costs money that just isn’t there.

Doug Bryson, Spartanburg County Emergency Management Coordinator, has the numbers.

“You’re looking at ten to twelve thousand dollars for a siren alone…multiply that by 70 sirens that we have in Spartanburg County, we could probably put a weather alert radio in every house in Spartanburg County for what the sirens cost.”

So why not just ditch the sirens and give everyone a weather radio?

“It (the current siren system) is a system that is in place…it will stay here, because there’s a certain percentage of the population that still likes them.”

In Cherokee County, sirens also sound for the entire county at once.  But that will be changing as they gradually upgrade their system.  The plan is to, in about three years, have enough of the county upgraded to allow them to only sound sirens in areas of the county that are under a tornado warning

With only sixteen sirens, it’s easier for them to find money through grants.

Gaffney Fire Chief Jamie Caggiano likes the sirens as a total package, knowing there are many residents in his coverage area who may not have the means to receive their warnings in any other way.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with public groups that said, yes…that’s something they felt like we needed.  It was pushed from council and the mayor’s office, it was also pushed form inside the fire department.”

Meanwhile, in Greenville County there is no county siren system…and no plans for one.  Greenville County Emergency Management Director explains why.

“We don’t have any complaints so far.  With technology being what it is today, there are so many cost-effective ways to get the message out through the media or through social media that can pinpoint a more specific area rather than tying up a system that would cover the whole county.”

Farther south, Greenwood County points to this technology as a reason for their recent decision to phase out their sirens.

George McKinney, the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator, points to the need to push to cheaper, but reliable, solutions.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re using the county’s and the citizen’s money as wisely as possible.”

One thing all emergency managers and the National Weather Service agree on:  sirens are designed to be heard outdoors, not indoors…and only within a couple miles of the sirens.  As a result, you shouldn’t rely on them as your only notice of severe weather warnings.

Even so, many do hear them…and rely on them.  Including Joe Carter.

“It works….why take away something that works?”

The reason, Doug Bryson says, is simple.

     “The weather alert radios are by far the most effective and efficient method of warnings as they can be used for so much more than weather, they can be used for amber alerts, they can be used for local evacuation alerts.”

Jay Marett also points to other capabilities that are on the way for Greenville County

“You always want more and better to protect the citizens of your county.  We currently are getting ready to introduce a county-wide notification system that’s going to utilize phone service or texting.  Which the public will have the option to go and sign up for and they will be able to pick the level of notification they have and what they’re notified for.”

In addition to their sirens, Cherokee County already utilizes a texting system.

Jamie Caggiano says “We’ve got a system called NIXL that we can send out text messages with, we’re pushing that really hard and have that on our website.”

It’s all information you need to pay attention to and act on immediately.

Don’t forget, Storm Team 7 provides you with weather updates anytime, anywhere…on-air and with severe weather texts, emails, and apps that alert you when warnings are issued.

You can sign up for these by going to the weather tab at wspa.com.

Here you can also find out how to program a weather radio.

There are other sources for warning information that work nationally…such as NOAA weather radio, and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)…a service that comes automatically with many new cell phones.

There are also some local agencies that give you an opportunity to sign up to receive weather alerts or other emergency information for their counties or cities:

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