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What we think: Tornado sirens need quiet review

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By The Staff

Chicken Little seems to be alive and well and living in Shelby County.

At least that is what we fear.

Those weather sirens that have been blaring away recently in late-evening and early-morning hours are supposed to tell us the sky is falling, but so far they have proven to be nothing but, yes, false alarms.

Let there be no mistake: Weather sirens are good for communities. They can alert residents about dangerous conditions that are imminent.

They can reach a broad number of people quite easily and quickly.

And they have been proven to have saved lives.

But bad communication or an itchy trigger finger can render them overused and, thus, ineffective.

If a resident hears the sirens often enough and there are no storm conditions to follow, we fear that resident will be conditioned not to respond and thus be in greater danger.

That’s why we suggest some review of when and who sounds the alarms.

As it is, all it takes is a resident and/or an emergency worker to see a cluster of clouds, perhaps only illuminated by lightning, to appear to be something ominous and oncoming to touch off the process for sounding the alarms.

These spotters become cell-phone-propelled Paul Reveres, and the word is spread rapidly about danger dangling from the skies. And that’s perhaps too rapidly.

Twice in the past 10 days Shelby County has heard these sirens.

Twice residents have scrambled to TVs, radios and windows to check conditions and see the path of these dangerous storms.

Twice they have heard very little or nothing, other than perhaps the cries of children awakened by sirens that were louder than the peels of thunder.

Twice they were fooled by storms that were spotted but never plotted on a tracking map.

Add to this the news that Shelby County Emergency Management is planning to install “talking” weather alerts at Clear Creek Park.

This sounds good – it’s extremely important that alarms be in place and that citizens heed them – but we also see a greater danger.

If those alarms had been activated last week, residents of homes in the vicinity of the park likely would have been in full storm alert, headed for their basements and interior rooms.

That is the sort of response we want from residents, but the more they hear the hollow alarms, the less likely they will respond at all.

We suggest processes be changed and that a clear decision-making procedure include a high level of training for emergency workers and a strong communication with the local offices of the National Weather Service to ensure that what we see is what we might get.

After all, in the great sport of cloud watching, one person’s funnel cloud may be another person’s slice of pizza.

We believe radar and other devices should reinforce the presence of such storms before the sirens are sounded.

The last thing we would want during a major storm is for the public to hear the sirens and rush into the streets to see if indeed the sky is falling.

When it comes to bad weather, it’s good to be chicken and not just a little.