As a storm chaser I LOVE the sound of tornado sirens, especially if there is a visible tornado. However it is bittersweet since for there to be tornado sirens, there needs to be people in the vicinity of the tornado and that is always a horrible situation. I do not like destruction or deaths so don't get the wrong impression when I say I like the sound of tornado sirens. Every time my home town goes under a warning and I am not chasing, I always go out there and video the storm coming in with the sirens blaring. I know storm structure and how to read radar so I know if I wasn't in any immediate danger I can stay out there through the duration of the storm. With that being said...
Why is it every time I am out on a chase and going through a town with sirens blaring I see 1,000 people standing out on their front porches or in the streets looking in the wrong direction. Is it possible that these people are as educated as storm chasers or are spotters themselves and can pick out danger as they see it? I guess. Is it probable that ALL those people are? Absolutely not. I guess I can't understand why people want to go out of their safe place to view and observe the storm when they may not even be able to see it. Do people take tornado sirens for granted? Do they even know why they are going off? Do they even notice they are going off? I don't know. I am not a social scientist or claim to speak for other people. Although a popular notion out there is that "it can't happen to me." Talk to the poor people of Greensburg, KS, Plainfield, IL, or Parkersburg, IA. Devastating tornadoes decimated those towns and unfortunately caused fatalities. I know in the case of Greensburg all the residents did act in an appropriate manner, the tornado was just that powerful that it killed 9 people in their basements. Storm chaser reports, National Weather Service warnings, and the media saved lives but did sirens save lives? I can't answer that and won't even speculate in those cases out of respect for those who have lost everything.
I can talk about cases I have witnessed first hand though. Normally my neighborhood is pretty vigilant of warnings. When the sirens go off people get off the streets and get inside their homes, whether they are taking shelter in the basement is beyond me. But the point is, people aren't flocking the streets like the 4th of July parade. Let me post an example....
May 19th, 2010: While chasing a newly tornado warned supercell near Norman, OK we were on the southwest side of town as the warning was issued. The sirens started to blare and as we drove past a couple subdivisions we noticed people outside walking around and gathering in fields to watch. As we headed south to Purcell and Lexington it was the same story. Everyone was outside and looking around. It was as if the tornado sirens signaled a party was started. The Norman area was hit by an EF-4 tornado 9 days before this and people were out gawking and looking in the wrong directions for the tornado. Is there some standard in Oklahoma that says you can't take shelter unless you visually see a tornado coming? This isn't a bash on Oklahomans because I have seen in Kansas, Nebraska, and Illinois.
Above video used with Ben Holcomb's permission
People need to remember that tornado sirens signal that you are under a warning. Not that you need to come outside and survey things yourself. Will anyone ultimately be killed because they walked outside because they wanted to see it before they believed it? Probably not. But I fear it takes a devastating event (I.E strong tornado hitting their town) before that thought of "it can't happen to me" fades away.
Another striking example was on May 22nd, 2010. As the wedge was moving to the northwest of town, the town itself had tornado sirens blaring. As we passed by the town we could see the wedge on the buildings to the NW but people facing east and south west pointing at the sky totally oblivious to the giant tornado a couple miles to their north. To this day I don't think some of those people truly realize how LUCKY they were to have God on their side and to have this likely EF-5 tornado (opinion) narrowly miss them.
Wedge tornado in progress behind buildings while residents look in the opposite direction
I was going to spin this blog toward posing the question if tornado sirens really are a help or hindrance to the warning process.... but I am smarter than that. I know they DO serve their purpose, but it is up to you and me as individuals to make smart choices. If we choose to step outside and gawk at the sky and end up become a human missile, then we only have ourselves to blame. Point of the blog was for those of us in the weather community to drive home the point to warn those who aren't living and breathing weather 24/7 to take shelter. A great present for anyone for their birthday and/or Christmas is a NOAA weather radio. Even set it up for them and put it in the corner or something. Enter the SAME codes in to their county or the adjacent counties and let the radio do its' job. Unless you live close to a siren, you probably will never hear it during a storm and especially in the middle of the night.
So please I recommend us to remind loved ones when the sirens blow they have to go for shelter. They may run to the shelter 99 times a year but on that 100th time that they don't could end up catastrophic. Severe weather season is only a month away. Make sure you have batteries for your radio and a disaster plan or designated tornado shelter. Pre-plan and practice so when the time comes you and your family can get there in a quick efficient manner. Things can be replaced, humans can't.
Stay safe readers!