Outdated tornado sirens could do more harm than good - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Outdated tornado sirens could do more harm than good

(WMC-TV) – Tornado sirens are intended to warn us when a twister is eminent, but sirens in your neighborhood may sound during a storm even when there's real threat to that area. For most residents in Shelby County, the sirens sound county-wide, no matter where the twister is actually headed and history shows that may cause more harm, than good.

When a tornado hit Joplin, MO, it killed 160 people.

"We know for a fact people died because they didn't pay attention because the sirens go off all the time," said Action News 5 meteorologist Dave Brown.

It was the same story when deadly tornados ripped across Alabama last April.

In most counties, including the majority of Shelby County, anytime there is a tornado warning anywhere in the county, sirens sound all over.

"So the next time the sirens blow, people pay no attention and this happens over and over again," Brown said.

According to Emergency Management Agency Director Bob Nations, Shelby County doesn't have the technology to only activate sirens in the specific area where a threat is detected. However, the technology does exist.

"I understand that there are technologies that are being developed to where you could encode just a series of sirens that would be in an impacted area," he said.

Nations said the issue is money.

As it stands now, the 160 sirens across Shelby County are expensive to repair and replace and money to overhaul the county's alert system simply is not there.

However, Nations admits the county is using an antiquated system. In fact, the current siren system wasn't even created for tornado warnings. Instead, they date back to the days of the Cold War's duck and cover drills.

"These are external warning sirens," Nations said. "They have always been intended for those who might be outdoors to seek shelter."

"It's not meant to wake you up at night," said Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "It's really if you are outside then go indoors."

Nations said even if the technology was available to sound sirens only in places that were in imminent danger from a tornado, it would still be a dangerous decision to make.

He asks what if EMA personnel, who are not trained in meteorology, selected the wrong sirens to sound?

"So, for right now, we have to go to our primary system," he said. "We sound the sirens. They go throughout the county and we have to sound them for the length of the warning."

Still, Dave Brown believes the carnage in Joplin and Alabama is evidence that pushing for a more modern warning system is a worthwhile cause.

"If they can work together to figure out better more timely weather warnings, they are going to save lives," he said.

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