Investigations

I-TEAM: Silent sirens: Why some area communities choose against having tornado sirens

Three confirmed tornadoes have touched down in the Miami Valley so far this spring, according to the National Weather Service. But when those life-threatening storms hit, some communities do not sound the alarm outside.

>>Storm Tracking Alert: Isolated strong to severe storms Wednesday; Damaging wind, hail, brief tornado possible

That’s because they don’t have tornado sirens.

The I-Team investigated why some of our local communities have made this decision and the ways you can protect your family if you live in an area that stays silent during severe storms.

“How do you find out about severe weather watches and warnings?” That’s one of the questions the I-Team asked people all over the Miami Valley. Here are their responses:

“Over our cable,” Sandy Torresani, from Sugarcreek Township said.

Hunter Winegardner lives in Springfield and told us, “usually alerts on my phone.”

“Usually through my phone or the television’s on it will scroll if there’s a warning out there,” Jackie Rudzinski, from Centerville said.

Damon Hinesman is from Huber Heights and said, “A weather app usually.”

The second question the I-Team posed to this group of people was, “Are tornado sirens the primary way you find out about tornado warnings?”

“Not too much, honestly,” Winegardner said.

“No, I think we have our TV on most of the time,” Rudzinski said. “Probably that would be my first way.”

“I try to investigate what’s going on, because I’m not used to hearing it. But it’s few and far between that I actually hear the siren,” Hinesman said,

Torresani told us, “At night when it goes off, we know that there’s a tornado in the area.”

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An Ohio Emergency Management Agency (EMA) spokesperson told the I-Team, “Since Ohio is a ‘home rule’ state, each county and municipality owns and operates their own sirens.”

In an email, Sandy Mackey, with the Ohio EMA Office of Public Affairs, added, “Ohio EMA has no input or control over warning sirens.”

The I-Team emailed Emergency Management Agency directors across our viewing area to ask how many active tornado sirens they have in their county? Some County EMA agencies also refer to them as outdoor warning sirens. Here’s what we found:

  • Montgomery County – at least 92
  • Butler County – 81
  • Warren County – 61
  • Clinton County – 30
  • Auglaize Co. – 30
  • Darke County – 30
  • Logan County – 28
  • Miami County – at least 27
  • Mercer County – 25
  • Greene County – 23
  • Wayne County (Ind.) – 23
  • Preble County – 21
  • Shelby County – 16
  • Clark County – 14
  • Champaign County – 0

On that list, you can see Champaign County doesn’t have any tornado sirens.

“(The County) made that decision about 11 years ago – in 2011 is when they started the conversation on that,” said Champaign County EMA Director James Freeman, who’s held that position since 2017.

“And the sirens were officially discontinued on January 1 of 2013.”

Freeman told the I-Team the decision to silence Champaign County’s siren system came down to cost. He said the county used to have 25 sirens, and updating all 25 at a cost of about $60,000 each would have cost the county $1.5 million. The quote did not include the cost of annual maintenance, Freeman said.

“In a perfect world we would have them, I would imagine,” Freeman said. “And it’d be an additional layer (to the local alert system), but you really have to weigh the cost and the benefit of that.”

“I think any government that’s looking at that needs to look at this pretty significant cost of doing it -- doing a benefit and cost analysis and engaging in some public discourse on it. The other draw back to tornado sirens is that they’re only good for tornado warnings. So if you have other things that are going on, they have no other value as a notification tool,” Freeman said.

Champaign County isn’t the only pocket of the Miami Valley that doesn’t have tornado sirens. Dayton, Springfield, Beavercreek, Riverside and Bellbrook are also among the communities locally that do not have outdoor warning sirens.

The I-Team asked Bellbrook City Manager, Rob Schommer, “To this point, why has the city felt it’s not its responsibility to have them as a way to protect people during severe weather?”

Schommer replied, “I’m not sure that it was a feeling of not the city’s responsibility but it was a feeling of what other options and opportunities are there?”

Schommer told the I-Team that Bellbrook is now considering installing tornado sirens. He said part of that process will be figuring out how to pay for the outdoor warning system.

“In Bellbrook’s case, it is a project that city council has recognized the community wishes them to look into. And it is being brought forward as a project to determine current costs and estimates and find ways to fund it and make it happen,” Schommer said.

So, aside from tornado sirens, how can you find about tornado warnings?

First, a NOAA weather radio is a great option. They’re easy to find and will cost you anywhere from $20 to $40 depending on what model you purchase.

The National Weather Service and our Storm Center 7 team say there are several other options that are free.

The City of Bellbrook and Champaign County each use Code Red, which is a local alert system. Hyper Reach, Everbridge and FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, are other examples of these kind of alerting services utilized by local governments not only for weather, but for public safety. You can check with your local county, city, or township to see what they offer and sign up for free.

The systems send one call alerts to your landline or can send emergency emails, plus calls or texts to your cell phone.

There’s also weather apps like our free WHIO Weather App that sends custom audible alerts for severe weather watches and warnings even when the app is closed. It’s a free download in your app store.

>> Stay alert: Download the free WHIO Weather App

Social media pages for your local news source, like News Center 7, and the National Weather Service include information and important updates when tornado warnings are issued.

Lastly, if warnings do pop up in the Miami Valley, our team of Storm Center 7 meteorologists will always break into programming on air.

“No system is infallible and having a backup system and having a backup for the backup is really critical to make sure those notifications get out,” Tom Johnstone, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, told the I-Team.

“When there’s life-saving information like a tornado warning, it’s critical that folks have multiple ways to get that information.”

The bottom line Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs says: tornado sirens are a great tool, but they’re only one part of the severe weather warning system.

Vrydaghs says local alert technology has come a long way since outdoor warning sirens were first used for tornadoes in the 1970s.

“Tornado sirens were developed to give alerts to people when they’re outside because they are an audible alert when severe weather or tornadic activity,” Vrydaghs said. “And that was really important back in the 1970s obviously, at the Xenia tornado of 1974, you didn’t have the technology that we have today like cell phones. So having an audible alert to inclement weather was a great way to sound the alarm. But now this day and age, we don’t necessarily need that.”

The I-Team asked Vrydaghs, “Should tornado sirens be the primary way you learn about a tornado warning?”

Her response: “100 percent, tornado sirens should not be your primary way that you get an alert if severe weather or a tornado is about to strike. They were designed if you were to be outside and to be able to hear those tornado sirens. Most of us, we’re not outside all the time when this type of weather is going to happen. There are so many other ways that you can get an alert when severe weather is about to strike a community.”

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