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US towns decommission tornado sirens due to smart phone warnings

January 11, 2019; 1:35 PM

Tornado siren

The ringing blare of a tornado siren is as synonymous with the Great Plains and Midwest regions of the United States as flapjacks and barbecue. But with technological advancements in recent years, many communities have replaced a siren's wail with a phone's vibration.

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, sirens had been mounted at the fire station since the 1960s, and others have been more recently installed at the local power plant. But after nearly 60 years of upkeep, the city has decided to decommission the units this year. A similar situation arose in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the sirens broke down in the early 1990s and were never replaced.

The cost of upkeep has been an ultimate deciding factor for many towns and cities in decommissioning the alert systems. In Kalamazoo, township officials said the replacement cost for the city's nine sirens would have topped $250,000. In Longmont, Colorado, officials decommissioned the sirens and encouraged residents to sign up for alerts on Facebook or Twitter.

Phone tornado warning

In this May 28, 2014 photo, Sue Zehr shows the emergency alerts she keeps on her phone from the November 2013 tornado that destroyed her family's home in Washington, Ill. Zehr is standing in the new home under construction on the spot where the old one stood. (AP Photo/David Mercer)

Most sirens were never intended to serve as a storm warning device, as they were installed during the Cold War to serve as a warning system for a potential nuclear attack. Before the Cold War sirens, church bells and musical instruments were also used as a notification system.

There has also been some confusion over the intention of the siren alerts, like in Hamilton County, Tennessee. Don Allen, the Hamilton County Emergency Services Director, told timesfreepress.com that residents prefer the sirens, which are located at a nearby nuclear plant, to be used solely for nuclear emergencies.

The transition to smart phone notifications has been a cost-saving and more efficient option for many communities. By utilizing phone notifications, radio alerts and local television updates, officials around the country are switching to wireless emergency alerts.

"It's a great tool," Tod Pritchard, a former Public Information Officer with Wisconsin Emergency Management, told USA Today. "It's not just a standard ring or the tone you've selected. It has a different sound to it... It's more of a red flag, it gives you that immediate warning."

However, not everyone thinks modern, technological warnings are the final answer.

Dennis Mileti, the director emeritus of the National Hazards Center and an expert on disaster preparedness, told AccuWeather that he believes there is no one clear-cut, best way to notify the public for any disaster. Mileti said that no matter what avenue of communication is used, natural human instinct will be to learn more information rather than prepare.

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"When a person gets a disaster warning for any kind of disaster, including tornadoes, the first thing they will do is not respond to the warning by taking a protective action," Mileti told AccuWeather. "While all the forest animals are running away from the flames, human beings are in the backyard talking to their neighbor trying to figure out what is going [on], seeking to confirm the information. They waste time hanging out. And that's why, for example, in the Joplin, Missouri, tornado, so many people were found dead holding their cell phone because what they were doing was going to search for more confirming tornado information."

The tragedy Mileti was referring to was the historic 2011 twister that killed 116 Missouri residents. According to a federal assessment released after the tornado, a majority of individuals ignored the warnings put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The report added that many residents waited for additional information rather than seek shelter and that some people were confused over hearing two different tornado warning sirens leading up to the twister.

Emergency personnel after Joplin 2011 tornado

In this May 22, 2011, file photo, emergency personnel walk through a severely damaged neighborhood after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Mileti said minimizing the delay between the warnings and people's reaction is dire. In order to do so, he said officials need to communicate the right kind of information.

"The name of the ballgame is not in technology; it's what you can do to minimize protective action initiation delay and we actually know how to do that," Mileti said.

According to Mileti's research, which has spanned over 65 years, there is not one single warning dissemination channel that is far more effective than any other channel. That includes smart phone notifications, text message updates, reverse 9-1-1 calls or tornado sirens.

"I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt, I'd bet my soul on it, that there is no single silver bullet warning dissemination channel," Mileti said. "It's not sirens, it's not modern technology, there simply isn't just one that gets the job done. If you want to reach the maximum penetration into the audience at risk with your warning dissemination technology, I and my colleagues have concluded that you need to use multiple dissemination channels and you need to use traditional dissemination channels, like radio and television, alongside modern dissemination channels, electronic, because each one of those reach different at-risk sub-populations first."

"There is not a single one that reaches everybody, so my recommendation to local communities is to use every dissemination channel at their disposal. If you want an effective warning system that saves people's lives, you need multiple and diverse dissemination channels. I would really scold anybody who was relying entirely on any one channel. There simply is no one channel that works far better than all the others. That's just because of the way human beings are wired."

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