By Terry Schrimscher
ST. CLAIR COUNTY — Alabama has experienced an above average number of tornadoes already in 2019, according to the National Weather Service. The increase in storms has reignited a debate over the effectiveness of storm sirens.
Recently, officials for St. Clair County warned citizens not to rely on the sirens and voted not to continue funding for the maintenance of the sirens. Many counties around the state have done the same.
The Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) recently updated to a polygon-based siren system and added the optional Everbridge Emergency Alerts. The polygon sirens only sound alerts in areas where storm trackers determine there is imminent danger. Officials hope eliminating county-wide alerts in favor of the more hyperlocal sirens will help prevent complacency. The Everbridge system allows residents to subscribe to weather alerts on their cell phone or landline.
On its website, the Jefferson County EMA said the old siren system was based on 1950s technology and was really designed to alert people who were outdoors at the time of a storm sighting.
The inefficiency of the old system has led many to question if sirens are needed at all. One advocate for better technology is ABC 33/40 chief meteorologist James Spann.
“The siren mentality has killed countless people in Alabama over the years,” Spann said. “The idea that you will hear a siren before a tornado strikes. The truth is that sirens reach a small number of people, mostly outdoors. They have never been effective in reaching people in a home, business, school, or church. You might hear one on a sunny day, but there is no hope during a raging storm in the middle of the night.”
Springville Fire Chief Richard Harvey maintains two city-owned sirens within the city limits of Springville. He said the sirens are just a tool to alert people of potential danger. Springville plans to maintain the existing sirens until they need to be removed or until they become a burden to taxpayers.
Harvey is concerned that sirens can create a false sense of security. Although they are tested regularly, the old sirens that are battery powered could fail between tests without warning. He is also in agreement that people need to be more aware of storm dangers and said there are many other tools available to the public.
Spann said his opinion is that people would be better served if local governments diverted the funds spent on sirens to place a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio in every home.
“They are the baseline for receiving tornado warnings, and only a very small percentage of Alabamians have one,” Spann said.
The second tier, according to Spann, is a smartphone with weather alerts enabled and a good weather app. He said the NOAA radios don’t rely on cellular service like a smartphone.
Tornadoes can strike any time of year in Alabama, according to the National Weather Service. However, they are more prevalent in the spring months and in November and December.
Alabama averages 47 tornadoes and 12.6 tornado days per year. Already in 2019, Alabama has experienced 53 tornadoes in only nine tornado days with three of the peak storm months remaining.