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If you spend any time in Oklahoma, you quickly get accustomed to two things: tornadoes and the sound of the tornado sirens. And if you are in Tulsa around noon on a Wednesday, you’ll be very quickly aware of the sirens as they are put through their weekly test.
Yet what many people may not know, the sirens are actually classified as a Civil Defense Siren and originated during World War II. Admittedly, the chances of today’s “tornado sirens” being of this vintage are extremely small.
In the US, the Civil Defense Sirens are utilized for several different alerts: tsunamis, tornado, fire (some volunteer departments will use it to call in volunteers), and who can forget the “classic” nuclear attack siren. Also, (more importantly) the sirens are controlled by the county, city, or municipality level, not directly by national or governmental entities such as the NWS (National Weather Service).
Further important information about their use is often not fully understood by the populace that is most at risk:
- They should alert people OUTDOORS and are not intended to be heard indoors.
- They signal people to go indoors and seek further information from other sources, such as local news.
- If they stop sounding, it does not (necessarily) mean the danger has passed.
Now, you may wonder where I’m going with this; well, all this was forced back into the public’s mind this past week here in Tulsa when at approximately 1:25 am on Sunday 6th August, an EF2 tornado dropped into mid-town Tulsa. There were no tornado sirens to be heard anywhere as it traveled eastwards, severely damaging multiple businesses and injuring at least 30 people. Then just 8 minutes later, an EF1 dropped in Broken Arrow, but this time, the local sirens were sounded.
Later that Sunday, the Tulsa Area Emergency Manager gave a news conference to explain why the sirens were never sounded in Tulsa that morning. In it, he spoke of how the NWS had issued the tornado warning to his office, but that in the time it took for the warning to be confirmed, the tornado had already passed the area and was in Broken Arrow. But he had given the warning to his counterparts in Broken Arrow, and they were able to sound their sirens in time.
You’ll notice I highlighted part of his comments, an essential part. There is clearly a delay (possibly a significant delay) in a warning issued by entities like the NWS and the local Emergency Management offices reacting and sounding the sirens because they are trying to confirm details/accuracy. Not that the populace should be (entirely) depending on the sirens for alerting them to tornadoes, and especially not expecting the sirens to wake them in the middle of the night (see point 1 above).
What to do with those warnings
So what are people meant to do to ensure timely and effective warnings and alerts?
Well, there are a few things that they can do. The first should be to get a weather radio with S.A.M. E technology. (Specific Area Message Encoding) What it does is provide a means to set your location (by area code) so that whenever the NOAA Weather Radio (NWR), who are part of the NWS (National Weather Service) issues an alert that affects your area, your radio will sound an alarm. I can confirm from my own experience that it could “wake the dead” and not stop until you physically silence the radio alarm.
Next would be to get an alert app for your smartphone. I actually have two such apps on my phone. The first is from FEMA (called FEMA, go figure). The other one is called Tornado and is produced by the Red Cross (there are several others available from different developers); both are available for iPhone and Android. The apps allows you to not only pre-program specific locations for alerts but also connect with your device’s GPS to provide “real-time” location alerts directly from the NWS.
With these additions, not only are you being proactive about your (and your family’s) safety, you are also getting alerts direct from the source, so no unnecessary delays as someone tries to confirm the alert before issuing a warning to the public. The radios are fully capable of waking you in the middle of the night and give you (and your family) a chance to take shelter and/or other precautions.
Personally, I go a little further than this in my efforts to keep informed and keep safe. I have an additional app on my Android phone, called PYKL3 Radar, that gives real-time weather radar feeds; it’s intended for storm spotters, among others. I use it to track the direction of storm travel and also the severity. I also hold a Technician class amateur radio license. When storms are around, I will tune into the SKYWARN spotters as they communicate back and forth to the Tulsa NWS office. This also leads me into providing some often unknown info about amateur (HAM) radio:
- You do not need to have a license to listen to/monitor the amateur radio frequencies. Suppose you want to transmit on any of the HAM frequencies. In that case, you will need a Technician class license (minimum) and be on the correct frequencies identified under your license class.
- In an emergency (real and life-threatening), anyone, regardless of licensing, may transmit and request help on any frequency/channel.
Not that everyone is likely to have an amateur radio lying around, waiting to be used. It’s still another piece of useful information to have in your preparedness kit.
Originally published August 14, 2017