WICHITA, Kan. — With the peak of tornado season arriving in Tornado Alley, Sedgwick County officials moved to address public confusion about the role of outdoor warning sirens.
The need was evident after strong storms flirted with the metropolitan area on May 5, said Cody Charvat, training and exercise officer for Sedgwick County Emergency Management.
“People have expectations of the sirens that aren’t in line with our mission for the sirens,” Charvat said.
Strong thunderstorms moved into the area on that Sunday. When rotation was detected by radar, sirens were sounded for portions of Reno and western Sedgwick counties. Officials received calls from people complaining that their sirens were going off _ and others from people complaining because their sirens were silent.
Emergency dispatchers at 911 also received 34 calls about the sirens the night of May 5, the Wichita Eagle reported.
“So many people believe the sirens are their first means of warning, and actually, in today’s day and age, they’re really kind of the last,” said DeAnn Konkel, the warning system manager for the department.
New technology means people can get their weather alerts from television, weather radios, computers and smartphones, Charvat said. The outdoor sirens are for people who are outdoors and not near any of those other options.
Yet many people cling to outdated beliefs about tornado sirens.
After the May 5 storms, Konkel said, she received a call from a woman upset that the siren nearest to her didn’t go off.
“They were designed to wake me up in the middle of the night,” she told Konkel.
That’s simply not true, Konkel said.
Older houses weren’t as well-insulated as modern homes are, so sirens could more easily be heard indoors decades ago. Add interior noise from televisions, stereos and video games, Charvat said, and the wail of an outdoor siren can easily go unnoticed.
That’s why other warning methods should take precedence before sirens, Charvat said.
The storms earlier this month revealed there are still people who assume the siren nearest them should sound because sirens were going off elsewhere, the officials said.
But only those sirens within a geographic area designated as under threat by the National Weather Service are activated. The Wichita branch of the weather service has been producing warning polygons since 2005 — a practice that went nationwide in 2008.
Sedgwick County finished upgrading the software in its sirens in 2013 so they could be individually activated, Charvat said.
“I think the polygon helps people take the warnings more seriously,” Konkel said.
Before the upgrades, sirens had to be sounded for an entire county even if only one small portion of it was threatened.
“They became complacent when the sirens would go off,” Konkel said.
Polygons have helped reduce that complacency, she said.
Historically, the latter half of May has been the most active period for tornadoes in Kansas. There’s been an active storm pattern that forecasters expect to continue.
“We have to stay vigilant,” Charvat said. “If you live in Tornado Alley, in May you just automatically have to be alert to those possibilities.”
Sedgwick County’s outdoor sirens are sounded for only two reasons, Charvat said: when there is an attack on the homeland or if a tornado warning has been issued.
An attack would be signaled by a rise and fall of the siren tone, while a tornado warning is announced with a steady tone.
The sirens only sound for five minutes, regardless of how long the warning lasts, to prevent the equipment from overheating, Charvat said.
New warnings in the same area will trigger the sirens to sound again.
Residents unsure about where the nearest tornado siren is located in relation to their home or office can go to the emergency management department’s website online and click on a GIS map of siren locations for more information.
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