Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.
Tornado warning sirens have provided a public service for decades.
They’re also imperfect with many inherent problems. But don’t take my word for it. I offer the scholarly view of Emily Laidlaw, associate scientist for the Societal Impacts Program at the
Laidlaw writes in the January/February 2010 issue of Weatherwise magazine, “The Controversy Over Outdoor Warning Sirens.” She opens with an account of the 2008 tornado that ravaged a camp in
“The Little Sioux Scout Ranch tornado is a textbook example of how outdoor warning sirens should be utilized—in conjunction with comprehensive preparedness and weather awareness, as part of a warning network of multiple information sources. But sirens don’t always work as intended. Siren,
Scientific literature highlights a number of pitfalls of using sirens, including unrealistic societal dependence on them, desensitization towards them, sound-limiting geographic factors such as wind direction and varying topography, ineffectiveness in elderly and hearing impaired populations, and the fact that sirens are designed to be heard only in outdoor settings, such as at picnics or baseball games. In addition, there is no standardized policy for how or when communities activate sirens, meaning that a person from Nebraska who normally hears sirens and heads to her basement to seek shelter from a tornado might visit Washington’s coast and not realize that the same siren tone now means a tsunami may be approaching and that she should seek higher ground. Similarly, a person from
Even the phrase ‘outdoor warning sirens’ sometimes evokes controversy. ‘Calling them ‘outdoor warning sirens’ is confusing to people,” said Mark Widner, emergency preparedness manager for the city of
Sirens aren’t as glamorous or intriguing as new e-mail and cell phone alert systems, and they’re expensive. One siren can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on its specifications. Many new residential developments consider sirens an eyesore and mandate that they must meet a variety of aesthetic requirements before being installed, which only increases the cost. All of this can cause community officials to stop short of installing siren systems, even after a disaster.
On May 13, 1980, a vicious tornado struck the town of
Sirens, frequently cited in warning research literature as the second most common source of weather warning information for the general public, are a passive warning method. The average person can have no television, radio, or phone service, and be completely unaware of a severe weather threat and yet still be warned when a severe weather threat is imminent. All other technologies require some sort of action by the end user, even if a person receives the necessary equipment for free.
A large percentage of emergency managers and meteorologists, for example, maintain that the average person would be better served by receiving severe weather warnings from a NOAA weather radio rather than a siren. First, weather radios are designed to be heard indoors. Second, they appear to be more cost effective than sirens, ranging in price from approximately $30 to $110.
‘Sirens are less effective and less dependable than a weather radio, and they’re late,’ said Paul Johnson, director of the
Research by Walker Ashley and colleagues at
To be sure, Laidlaw provides pros about warning sirens. However, there are far too many question marks, including the risky scenario of supplying a false sense of security.
“The greater challenge, then, falls to a community of integrated meteorology and social science researchers to better understand how people make decisions during warnings, whether forecasts for weather threats are communicated effectively, how people perceive and interpret that information, and how emergency managers and other community officials can better use tools, such as outdoor warning sirens, to save lives.
As Ashley and colleagues wrote at the conclusion of their 2008 study on vulnerability to nocturnal tornadoes, ‘We must begin to stare down these questions and not sidestep them with the assumption that ‘technology’ will deliver complete and successful mitigation against these events in the future’.”
You can read the entire Laidlaw article here.