Sirens sound across the city, but for what?

Friday, March 28, 2014 | 6:29 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 1, 2014

COLUMBIA — Outdoor warning sirens blared across Columbia on Thursday evening, and many people around the city and at MU were instructed to take cover.

Despite the ominous sirens, two tornado warnings were issued for southern Boone County, largely away from Columbia.

Sounding the warning sirens throughout the county is standard procedure, but some experts believe that this could lead to siren fatigue. The Boone County Office of Emergency Management is exploring changing its practice of countywide alerts.

On Thursday, the weather service in St. Louis issued two separate tornado warnings for southern Boone County, one at 5:05 p.m. and another at 5:35 p.m. These warnings triggered the Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications to activate the outdoor warning sirens across the entire county, according to an Office of Emergency Management news release. 

The county used a system of 85 county sirens to alert residents of dangerous weather conditions, according to the release.

"The ... outdoor warning siren system sounds all sirens controlled by PSJC in Boone County simultaneously, no matter which portion of the county is affected by a tornado warning," the release states.

This practice, though comprehensive, can have pitfalls.

Jim Kramper, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in St. Louis, said blanket alerts can lead to "false alarm issues." He said outdoor warning sirens should be activated in specific geographical zones, rather than all encompassing blanket alerts.

The Office of Emergency Management is looking at implementing a more targeted system for Columbia and Boone County, according to a Friday press release.

The office is working to divide the 85 sirens into separate zones: north, central, south and all.

This would allow the county to alert more specific areas affected by tornado warnings, rather than notifying the entire county when a tornado warning is issued. 

With the current system of blanket coverage, there is a tendency to overuse the warnings — essentially crying wolf, said Joe Piper, the acting operations manager for Joint Communications.

But it does have some advantages, Piper said, especially for people who are traveling when the warnings are issued or if the storm alters its path.

According to the Office of Emergency Management's release, the zones will be large enough to avoid unnecessary delay.

And under the zone system, sirens still would have been activated in Columbia on Thursday, according to the release.

"The zones might be better," Piper said. "But they won't be perfect."

Tornado warnings, according to the National Weather Service, are "the ultimate in severe warnings." A warning means that a tornado is already occurring in the area or is imminent.

Tornado watches, on the other hand, just mean that storm conditions could be capable of producing tornadoes. Outdoor warning sirens are not activated for tornado watches, Kramper said.

The weather service in St. Louis is responsible for issuing tornado warnings for Boone County, which then causes Joint Communications to sound the outdoor sirens.

Joint Communications can also activate the sirens under their own set of criteria, especially if the office receives reliable information that a storm is producing severe or extensive damage, Piper said. Other criteria for sounding the warning sirens include sustained, damaging winds in excess of 70 mph or life-threatening events such as a nuclear emergency.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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