Summer storm season has been underway in Minnesota for at least two months this year. We’ve already had a lot of severe weather and almost countless activations of the “severe weather sirens.” There’s no question that the criteria for categorizing a storm has changed to allow more storms to be called severe enough to activate the sirens, but what I want to know is does the increased number of siren activations change peoples perception of the sirens. Do people perceive that our counties and cities are “crying wolf?”
Even though recently the NWS did change it’s hail criterion from 0.75″ to 1″, other criteria have diluted the definition of a severe storm. At the risk of sounding old and crotchety, I remember when a tornado warning meant they actually spotted a tornado. This coupled with the fact that cities and counties have their own criteria for sounding the alarm can mean sirens are activated even for severe thunderstorms with straight line winds or hail.
One week this year, we had the sirens go off five times (that I heard) and nothing happened in our area; there was even one confirmed false alarm. I really wonder whether people will become acclimatized to the sirens when they go off so often, especially with a False Alarm Rate of 80-90% in some areas — that they’ll fail to take shelter when they really need to because nothing happened the last 20 times the sirens went off. I know I have. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t rush the family into the basement when I hear the alarms. I’ll turn on the TV and if don’t see Dave Dahl’s face (or another Meteorologist), I’ll leisurely go to the computer and look up the NWS online and try to figure out what’s going on.
Now I know that the NWS is trying to warn people sooner so that they can get to shelter, potentially saving lives and preventing injury, but if you cry wolf too many times, my feeling is that people just aren’t going to take them seriously.
I know that I’m not the only one who thinks that way — although it was hard to find opinions on the whether increased activation of the sirens causes public apathy. I was able to track down a couple of people who have written extensively about the possibility. The first was Roger Edwards. He wrote a well referenced treatise on what’s wrong with the severe weather criteria and how to fix them. I’m not positive about his credentials, but what he says makes sense (dangerous I know). His best quote is:
Moreover, the tremendous increase in warning numbers, especially those verified merely by marginally severe reports or by isolated events unrepresentative of the storm’s impact on the entire warned area, could dilute public confidence in warnings, ultimately endangering lives. This is the “cry wolf” effect, where (for example) a series of warnings in a county over a period of months or years, each verified by isolated dime size hailstones or estimated gusts of 60 mph, creates apathy — leading in turn to death and injury in a devastating event of extreme severity.
James Spann is another meteorologist who proposes that sirens are sounding too often. He even goes as far as saying the sirens should be taken down; they’ve outlived their usefulness and there are many better ways of informing people of impending doom.
While I’m not sure I’m ready to tear down the “severe weather” sirens, I definitely think there should be some more study on the effect of repeated false alarm on people’s preparedness for dangerous storms.
Note: I can’t find anybody who keeps records of how many times the sirens have gone off in an area — if records are kept they are probably kept by the same cities and counties that control the sirens, but the NOAA does have a cool page online where you can search for the storm history for your area.
- WDTB Webmaster. January 5, 2010. Why One Inch Hail Criterion? In National Weather Service Website. Retrieved July 27,2011, from http://www.weather.gov/oneinchhail/
- I did not have time to find a definitive source.
- I cannot find the siren activation policies for Ramsey county or my city, but from experience I know they activate the sirens for some severe thunderstorms
- Spann, James. June 8th, 2011. The Warning Process Must Get Better. ABC 33/40 Weather Blog. Retrieved July 27th, 2011, from http://www.alabamawx.com/?p=48699
- Edwards, Roger. Original publishing date unknown (updates in 2001 and 2003). PROPOSALS FOR CHANGES IN SEVERE LOCAL STORM WARNINGS, WARNING CRITERIA AND VERIFICATION. Roger Edward’s Home Page. Retrieved July 27th, 2011, from http://www.stormeyes.org/tornado/verf/
- Spann, James (see #4)