Over the past 36 hours or so, I have watched tornadic storms ravaged parts of the southern United States. The Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service has been warning for days that a potent storm system would produce this type of activity. Even as I write this essay, parts of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas should keep a weather eye out this Palm Sunday. As I write this, my area of Georgia is under a tornado watch until 2 pm. Unfortunately, Palm Sunday has seen its share of tornado outbreaks over the years, and some churches even decided to cancel services today. I had no intentions of writing anything today until I saw the following Tweet:
No tornado siren could be heard in highland lakes! Large oak and pine trees on houses. Could have been very bad with children’s bedrooms mostly upstairs. Thanks for the heads up @spann Any idea why they didn’t go off?
The person tweeting this had nothing but the best intentions so there is no intent to ridicule him. In fact, the Tweet is useful because it provides an opportunity to remind the public facing tornado danger why you cannot rely on tornado sirens indoors.
My good friend and colleague James Spann is one of the best broadcast meteorologists in the business. He is certified by the American Meteorological Society and hosts the outstanding WeatherBrains podcast. Spann is the Chief Meteorologist at WBMA ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, which had tornado risks all night. His response to that tweet sums it up: ”This is why we say NEVER rely on a siren! Every Alabama home must have a NOAA Weather Radio…”
In fact, the NOAA, the parent agency of the National Weather Service has clear guidance on outdoor warning sirens on its website. However, before I mention those, it is important to note that they are called “outdoor” warning sirens. Here is what the NOAA says on its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ website about what it means when you hear an outdoor warning siren:
In short, it means that something life-threatening is happening and you should go indoors and get more information. The specific guidelines (tornado, hail ,wind, etc.) for sounding sirens varies by jurisdiction, so check with your local community to find out the specifics if you are interested….Sirens are an outdoor warning system designed only to alert those who are outside that something dangerous is approaching.
For alerts indoors at home or in the workplace, the website recommends a NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards. As the website points out, “NOAA Weather Radio is like a smoke detector for severe weather, and it can wake you up when a warning is issued for your area so you can take appropriate action.” In the more modern era, I would also recommend certain alert Apps like Red Cross Tornado or the FEMA App. Here in Georgia, I rely on the ReadyGA App. Even with Apps, you must remember that a fully-charged phone is a requirement. Anna Lawrence is a teacher in Georgia and our daughters are in the same Girl Scout troop. She messaged me this morning and said, “Weather radio already went off this morning and my county alert system called, will stay informed and aware!” Her county has sirens, but Mrs. Lawrence clearly has the right approach to risk messaging for our ongoing tornado watch.
Spann’s response to the aforementioned Tweet is not a flash in the pan moment. He has been a strong advocate on educating the public about tornado safety and sirens. He wrote the following in a 2016 blog:
THE SIREN MENTALITY: Why in the world do people think they will hear a magical air raid siren inside their home to let them know a tornado is coming? Sure, you might hear a siren on nice days with blue sky and sunshine when they are being tested, but you have no hope in the middle of the night during a severe thunderstorm. They have never been designed to warn people inside homes, businesses, schools, churches, or any other structure. They reach a limited number of people outside, and that is it.
I often write Forbes articles to increase science literacy, and this one is no different. However, I also hope it serves a greater purpose for someone out there. Stay safe.