BY NICOLE LUNGER
Hennepin County residents are accustomed to hearing the storm sirens sound at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month for a test run. But what do the sirens mean specifically?
"I’ve become somewhat desensitized to them just because they go off a lot," said Jack Ahern of Wayzata. "I usually don’t change my schedule if I’m about to go boating and I hear them, but I will be extra careful and on the watch."
Eric Waage, director of Emergency Management, understands that most people have intuitively trained themselves not to take sirens seriously.
"The problem comes from lack of immediate consequences," Waage said.
When a tornado hit Joplin, Mos. last summer, Waage explained that improper responses to storm sirens nearly cost some people their lives.
"In Joplin, there was over a half-hour warning: time enough for the sirens to sound twice and people to take shelter and get information," Waage said.
"Yet, assessments done after Joplin and other tornadoes show that people did not take action at all until getting many separate pieces of information. In one instance, one person needed nine information sources before acting."
Outdoor warning sirens are used in Hennepin County to alert people already outdoors of approaching winds that have the potential for causing deadly damage. They do not, however, provide any indications of the type of severe weather.
"In winds at or above 70 mph, unprotected people are in serious danger of being killed or injured by falling trees, flying debris and collapsing structures," Waage said. "This is the speed that begins to produce serious property damage to things like aircraft, crops or utility lines."
In Hennepin County, sirens sound for five minutes and then are shut off. When the sirens go off, it does not mean the danger has passed, but that you should have found shelter by that time.
Cpt. James Bayer of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office recommends people stay ahead of the weather by using many sources of information.
"Once you’re inside, turn on a TV, turn on the radio, pull up weather applications on your phone and know what’s going on around you," said Bayer.
The outdoor warning sirens are part one of a two-part system. The other critical part is having a NOAA Weather Radio in your home and workplace.
The radios constantly monitor the National Weather Service’s transmitter and will sound a warning tone when severe weather is approaching.
"If you don’t have a NOAA Weather Radio in your home, you are missing the most effective part of the public warning system that’s in place to alert you," Waage said.
At times, residents of Hennepin County may hear a siren when the weather appears fine, or they may hear multiple sirens. Overlapping siren coverage between the four zones of Hennepin County are to blame.
"So, will there sometimes be sirens, but no tornado? Yes. Worse, will there sometimes be a tornado but no siren? We all try very hard to make sure that does not happen, but it is always possible," said Waage. "We are dealing with nature and nature does not follow our system."
Waage encourages people to volunteer to become trained Skywarn spotters and help improve the accuracy of National Weather Service warnings.
"I can tell you, we don’t take it lightly. We only sound the sirens when we think the weather is bad," Bayer said. "So when the sirens go off in Hennepin County, people need to take it seriously."
The Hennepin County Communications Office operates the outdoor weather sirens and responds to warnings issued by the National Weather Service.
If the siren wail is a rising and falling tone for five minutes, this indicates a national security tone and indicates an attack from an enemy is approaching or under way.
For information Skywarn spotters, visit crh.noaa.gov.mpx.
NOAA weather radios may be purchased at various retail stores. Learn more from the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen at nws.noaa.gov/nwr.