The truth behind tornado sirens

By  | 

Hear from Meteorologist James Spann from Birmingham, Alabama about his experience with tornado sirens, and the plea from one family after their traffic loss. Click on the video to watch.

Across the country, tornado sirens are still used to alert people when a tornado could form or has been spotted.

But do they work?

Chief Meteorologist Aubrey Urbanowicz explains why some say it's not worth it.

If you've ever lived in a tornado-prone area, you may be familiar with the sound of sirens. Rick Smith is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. Smith says hearing tornado sirens is just a way of life in some areas of the country.

"People grew up with them, they're used to them," said Smith, "and they're used quite a bit here in this area (Oklahoma)."

Even though tornadoes are not as frequent on the East Coast, they do happen. In many places, like the Shenandoah Valley, there are no sirens.

Chief Jeremy Holloway, with Rockingham County Fire and Rescue, told WHSV that several years ago, the idea of installing sirens was studied locally, but the decision was made against that idea.

"They aren't very cost effective, you'd have to have so many sirens out to cover the whole community," said Holloway.

Tornado sirens can cost $20,000 to $30,000 each to install. And that doesn't include yearly maintenance costs.

Also, minutes matter when activating sirens.

"We have a very short time frame to work with," said Holloway.

In 2017, a tornado hit Tulsa, Oklahoma so fast, there was no time to warn with the siren. That's why Rick Smith says wherever there are sirens, they should not solely be depended on.

"Sirens should never be number one, and sirens should never be the only way to get warnings."

Sirens have been struck by lightning, lost power, or simply just failed. Some have even been struck by the tornado itself.

Smith told WHSV at least a couple of sirens in Moore, Oklahoma were struck by the torando in May of 2013. A tornado near Birmingham, Alabama took out a siren on April 8, 1998.

With smartphones and text alerts, some say sirens are becoming a thing of the past. However, many college campuses, like JMU, have been adding them.

Robbie Symons is the Emergency Management Coordinator with JMU.

"We have four sirens on campus, and the reson for the sirens is a multi hazard siren," said Symons.

The sirens at JMU are specifically designed to be heard outside and inside campus buildings. Most tornado sirens around the country are only designed to be heard outside: not inside your home.

"It's just another backup system, a level of redundancy system that we have to notify as many people as we can," said Symons.

While sirens can work in a very small area like college campuses, these days, phone and text alerts are the fastest way for most of us to get severe weather alerts. But it's best to have not just one way to get alerts.

Because you never know when you'll lose cell phone service, be in an area without cell phone service, or when your power goes out.