Do You Know What Your Weather Siren Means?

Not All Weather Sirens In South Dakota Have The Same Message

Wednesday, as a part of severe weather awareness week, there will be a test tornado warning at 10:15 am statewide across South Dakota in which all counties and towns are expected to sound their sirens. But do you know exactly what a siren means when it goes off?

When you hear the blare of a weather siren, you may think that it is warning you that there is a tornado on the ground and it is time for you to take shelter. But in some South Dakota communities, that may not always be the case.

When asking the question “What do you sound your siren for?” to emergency managers from different counties across South Dakota, I got a surprised array of answers.

“Tornadoes only.” – Harold Timmerman, Lincoln County
“75-80 mph gust front winds… two-, three-inch, four-inch hail.” –  Brad Stiefvater, McCook County
“This one goes off every hour from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m…heavy dense concentrations of smoke plumes.” – Alex Roeber, Hyde County
“For confirmed tornadoes from law enforcement or the National Weather Service.” Lynn DeYoung, Minnehaha County

And that list goes on.

I found that there were more than a dozen different protocols on when to activate a weather siren, ranging from tornadoes, to fire, or even when it is time to eat dinner.

Each color on the map above is indicative of a different protocol on when to sound the alarm, and in most places there isn’t even a set policy on when to actually test the sirens.

When I asked McCook County emergency manager Brad Stiefvater, “By looking at that map, how does that make you feel?” he paused and responded, “Not Good… I’m really surprised of what you found here.”

With different meanings and protocols from county to county, and in some circumstances city to city, how does someone visiting from out of town know what the siren means when it goes off?

“Theoretically, you don’t. and that’s why we wanted to come up with some kind of common siren policy,” said Lincoln County emergency manager Harold Timmerman.

“The community they are coming from may have a different policy, so the more that we can standardize it, the more we avoid the mixed messages,” said Todd Heitkamp with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

Weather sirens are put in place to help warn the public of imminent weather danger, but inconsistencies on when to sound the siren have some calling for change.

“The biggest issue I have, is the mixed message component,” said Heitkamp. “If we’re trying to tell people to take action, they are thinking ‘Is that a fire siren? A curfew siren? What siren is that?’ And that’s really what we need to overcome.”

Overcoming these obstacles can be tricky, as there are 66 counties in South Dakota and not all sirens are state or county owned.

“To get each county or each community to adopt that with us, would be very difficult,” said Timmerman.

Varying meanings for each siren may not only cause confusion, but also ignorance.

In May of 2011, the deadliest tornado in more than 50 years touched down in Joplin, Missouri, killing 159 people and injuring more than 1,000. Survivors of the storm said people disregarded the sirens because they said they were sounded too frequently in tests or in storms that didn’t result in severe weather.

“Researchers say that the primary response was  ‘I didn’t pay attention to the siren because it goes off too much, I didn’t seek my place of shelter because when the siren goes off, a tornado never happens,’” said Minnehaha County emergency manager Lynn DeYoung.

And while there hasn’t been a tornado-related fatality in South Dakota since 1999, if the message of weather sirens continues to stay inconsistent, that could change sooner rather than later.

“The protocols really do need to be the same for everybody so we’re on the same page,” said Stiefvater.

The discussions have already started as emergency managers from the tri-state area have already held meetings on how to get on the same page regarding activating their weather sirens. However, they say some of it does come down to public responsibility.

“It’s up to them to be aware of that, too. We can’t take everybody by the hand, you might say, and say, ‘There is a storm coming, you need to be aware.’ Some of this has to come on their own,” said Timmerman.

If you have any questions on what you siren actually means, you can find a full list here, or you can email me at b_spinner@kdlt.com.

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