Tornado sirens target people outside

Reported by: Matt Ernst
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Updated: 5/31/2013 4:04 pm
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It's good city leaders are reviewing all the ways to improve the tornado warning system in Lubbock. There are more methods than ever before to get vital information to you. As with any emergency planning, it ultimately comes down to personal responsibility. But let me stress this one point...

Tornado sirens target people outdoors.

If the City of Lubbock installs tornado sirens I hope no one develops the siren mentality. It's where you think you'll hear a siren in your home before a tornado strikes. No one in Lubbock has that mindset now. It's been more than 30 years since sirens have been in place here, Bailey Jo Miller explains in this story.

Yes, if tornado sirens are installed every square mile many people will hear them inside their home. There are success stories where people hear a siren and take action. You'll definitely hear them outside. But it's not a guarantee that every home and business within the roughly 124 square miles of our city will be warned.

Sound doesn't travel as far when winds are whipping around in severe storms. Homes are built more insulated than ever. Think of a windy night, you're dead asleep and the siren sounds from somewhere on 34th Street, you live on 29th street...or the siren is on University and you live close to Elgin. Odds are a battery-powered NOAA weather radio in your bedroom or a smart phone app will do a better job of waking you.

Someone much better versed in this is James Spann, chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama. He's covered several deadly tornadoes, including the historic April 27, 2011 outbreak. The National Weather Association and American Meteorological Society both awarded Spann top honors for his work in 2011. Well before that outbreak he wrote here that the siren mentality would kill more Alabamians than anything else in future tornado outbreaks. After the 4/27 outbreak, here he reflects here on the warning process after more than 250 people died in his state.

Systems fail

Understand all systems can fail. Wolfforth's siren system didn't work during a tornado warning last April, story here. After repeated failures of their civil defense sirens, the City of Snyder decided to ditch sirens for newer technology. I've heard from long-time Lubbock residents who say they didn't hear sirens during the 1970 F5 tornado, though this timeline does state activation happened at 9:35 p.m.

Power can go out and you can't watch TV, batteries could die in your AM/FM radio or NOAA Weather Radio, or data service could drop out rendering smart phone apps useless.

Another failure isn't the lack of sound, but how sirens are used, causing confusion. In some communities sirens are sounded for only tornado warnings or confirmed tornadoes, while other communities will sound for watches or severe thunderstorms. Joplin, Missouri sounded the sirens before that killer tornado moved through in May 2011 ago but there was confusion among residents, noted in this assessment from the NWS. 158 people died, more than 1,000 injured in that Joplin twister. This is verbatim from the assessment

Most importantly, the perceived frequency of siren activation in Joplin led the majority of survey participants to become desensitized or complacent to this method of warning. This suggests that initial siren activations in Joplin (and severe weather warnings in general) have lost a degree of credibility for most residents- one of the most valued characteristics for successful risk communication. 

This also speaks to the issue over-warning and the false-alarm rate of warnings, which is an entirely separate subject.

Other alert methods

I've never heard someone say "they don't interrupt TV shows for severe weather enough in Lubbock." When the weather is bad you'll see the staffs of all the local news stations on the air. It's going to happen. The challenge is alerting people who may not be aware bad weather is moving in. According to the National Association of Broadcasters, with more ways to get information than ever, broadcast radio and TV is still tops for relaying critical information. We do stream our coverage online and to mobile devices.

Smart phone apps

I'm a strong proponent of FOX 34's MyWARN app. It only alerts you if you're in a warning, watch or severe outlook. It doesn't use county-based warnings, which is the old way of issuing warnings. Weather service forecasters issue specific polygons, narrowing down the people included. MyWARN uses this more-specific approach and only deals with watches and warnings for tornadoes, severe storms and flooding. Because this is advanced technology it costs about $10 to download the app.

This isn't unique to FOX 34. Channels 11, 13 and 28 have all partnered with different agencies for alert systems either by land line or mobile phone.

NOAA Weather Radio

A NOAA Weather Radio is a time-tested, potentially life-saving system right in your home or office, for about $30. This may be too expensive for some households. My biggest gripe against Weather Radios is they use county-based warnings. You can set the SAME code and it'll only alert for your county. When that alert sounds you'll definitely know something is going on. I do hear from some people who get tired of wind advisories and Amber alerts, which is a fair criticism. Most weather radios have battery backup, a way to get the warnings even if the power is out.

Reverse 911

Lubbock has a reverse 911 system in place. It was used to evacuate people in the Wylie Propane explosion in 2006 and to evacuate people from the Bayer Crop Science chemical leak earlier this year. Problem is this uses land lines. I don't have a land line at home. I don't know if the city has the system set up to add mobile numbers, but I know of many cities who do. This city database could then call either your land line or mobile phone to let you know of the emergency.

Social media

If you like FOX 34 Lubbock on facebook or follow @fox34 on twitter you'll get watches and warnings for our area. Facebook wants us to pay for you to see more of our posts, so it isn't as good of a severe weather tool. But if you head to our facebook page or our website or free FOX 34 News app you'll see the latest information. More importantly, social media a two-way method of communication. You can tell me something directly. This won't wake you up in the middle of the night, but it might be a way to get information if the power is out. You can search keywords and know what's happening in any part of the country via twitter, this two-way stream of information flows any time there is active weather.

My friend Matt Laubhan, who used to be the chief meteorologist at channel 13 here, covered the deadly tornadoes of April 27, 2011 in Tupelo, Mississippi. This included an EF-5 tornado that moved through Smithville, MS. He said social media saved lives. The power was out, satellite TV was fading, and sirens failed. But the staff at WTVA was able to get information to people in danger via social media; these people received critical information. Matt tells me many people watched coverage in their tornado safe place on their phones.

It's your call

I simply want to lay out some facts about tornado sirens and the warning process. If you, the taxpayer, want the sirens then city leaders should listen to how you want your money spent. It may be prudent to put another piece in place to keep us all safe. But keep in mind sirens are not designed to warn you indoors.

And I want your feedback, send it to
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