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July 24, 2013

The sounds of sirens

Experts say many don’t pay attention to severe weather alerts because they’re not sure what they mean

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

Fifth-grader Reiden Magdaleno, of McGrath Elementary School in Grand Blanc, took first prize in this year’s Severe Weather Awareness poster contest.

The clouds roll in. The wind picks up. The sirens begin to howl.

What do you do?

If you’re like many Michigan residents, you probably don’t do much. Local experts say that too many people have become numb to the key warning signs of a severe thunderstorm or even a tornado. And with severe weather season upon us, organizations are doing what they can to spread the word that serious weather is something to take a little more seriously.

Lori Conarton is the communications director for the Insurance Institute of Michigan. She’s also the secretary of the Michigan Committee for Severe Weather Awareness. The committee is made up of several groups — including insurance companies, the National Weather Service, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and more — all dedicated to keeping residents safe in the event of a potentially dangerous weather event.

The committee aims to spread the word on severe weather awareness, including what different weather alerts mean and what to do under circumstances of storm watches, warnings and outdoor tornado sirens. The committee hosts the annual Severe Weather Awareness poster contest for Michigan students, who come up with creative designs each year that encourage residents to take cover in the event of a severe storm.

“It seems like we’ve had quite a bit of severe weather lately,” said Conarton, detailing how it’s more important than ever that people know the difference between weather alerts. “A watch means to watch the sky and watch for conditions that may change. A warning means to take cover immediately. Don’t go outside — take cover. That means something has been sighted either by an individual or by Doppler radar.”

In the event of a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning, Conarton suggested seeking cover on the lowest level of a house or building, such as a basement or an interior room on the first floor, if no basement is available.

But watches and warnings are for those in front of a television or radio, and those people are generally inside already. For those who are enjoying the great outdoors on a summer day, it’s important to be aware of the skies, and most of all, heed severe weather sirens as soon as they sound.

Unfortunately, Conarton said it can be difficult to know what those sirens really mean, depending on where they are.

“There’s been a lot of confusion on sirens more and more. We have discussed it at our committee level, just how we can get that message out to people. There isn’t a statewide policy on sirens. They really need to find out for themselves,” she said.

In Macomb County, sirens are owned and operated by individual municipalities, according to Peter Locke, emergency management aid for Macomb County. There are some cases in which the county will sound sirens for smaller areas where staffing might be short. But the county and all villages, townships and cities in Macomb County get their cue from meteorologists at the National Weather Service.

“If the (National Weather Service) sends us a tornado warning, we set them off. If it’s a severe thunderstorm warning with winds exceeding 70 mph, we set them off,” he said, adding that storms aren’t the only emergency that could prompt the sound of a siren in the county.

“If there’s a hazardous waste spill or a nuclear attack, they could go off. Sirens mean something has occurred in your community or is occurring, and that you should go indoors and turn on a TV or radio and find out what is going on,” he said.

Locke said that 20 or 30 years ago, Macomb County actually had a different sound for sirens that were meant to indicate different types of emergencies. But that only led to confusion, he said.

“To tell you the truth, we couldn’t remember what the sounds stood for. And we thought, ‘If we can’t remember, how can the public remember?’ So, we just left it at, ‘If a siren sounds, there’s a threat.’”

Over in Oakland County, sirens are devoted exclusively to severe weather, according to Theodore Quisenberry, manager of Oakland County Homeland Security.

“We have a very robust siren program. There’s 267 sirens spread out across the county,” he said. “We rely an awful lot on the NWS in White Lake Township, and we’ll set the sirens off in the event of a tornado warning or a severe thunderstorm warning. We also have trained spotters out there if, for some reason, a tornado is sighted and a tornado watch is in effect and something develops rather quickly before a warning is called out.”

Also unlike Macomb County, each of Oakland’s sirens is activated at a central location: the Emergency Operations Center in Pontiac. All of the county’s sirens will sound, said Quisenberry, no matter where the weather threat might be within Oakland County’s limits. That’s because even the best meteorologists are often unable to predict the path of a storm — and when it could make a sudden turn.

“If we gave each community their own sirens, I think there would be some inconsistencies,” he said, adding that the sirens run for three minutes. “Even if you don’t see it, it’s good to take action. The storms we had two weeks ago that skirted the north Oakland County area, people in South Lyon and Royal Oak were calling because they didn’t see any clouds (and the sirens were going off). But if that storm had turned, it would’ve been in their backyard in a matter of minutes.”

For more information on severe weather awareness, visit the Michigan State Police website at www.michigan.gov/msp.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.