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Tornado Siren Confusion: New initiative to create unified best practices for warning sirens underway

WAUKESHA COUNTY, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Most of us will hear a tornado siren dozens of times throughout our life living in Wisconsin, but not all communities use those sirens for the same purpose. Now there's a unified effort among emergency officials to create a unified guidance of best practices.

Officially the sound many of us know as a tornado siren is called an outdoor warning siren and depending on where you live hearing that siren could mean a tornado, a thunderstorm or even a nuclear disaster.

“Sirens have changed in their use from aerial attack during WWII, and we had fire departments that’s how they alerted their firemen to respond to a call. Most areas it’s just tornado use,” said Director of Emergency Management Scott Ziegler who is leading an effort to come up with best practices for siren use across the state.

Part of the problem is that under Wisconsin law it is up to each individual city, town, and village on when they want to sound sirens and even if they have them at all. In 2011, Oconomowoc got rid of all but one of their sirens saying they were abandoning the old system and directing people to other ways of receiving alerts.

We reached out to all of the counties in southeast Wisconsin, and in some cases individual municipalities, and for almost all of them the criteria for sounding the siren is a tornado warning, but that's not currently the case in Waukesha County where their policy is a storm with 58 mph wind and 1" hail. That criteria is the same as any low-end severe thunderstorm warning which according to the National Weather Service happens an average of 14 times a year in Waukesha County. Compare that to Milwaukee County which only sounds their siren once or twice a year for tornadoes.

The difference in policy from Waukesha County to surrounding communities has caused confusion as recently as June 15 when residents in Menomonee Falls were confused by hearing the siren. 

Waukesha County is aware of the confusion and says public education needs to be better. When asked about public confusion Waukesha County Director of Emergency Preparedness Gary Bell said, "I do and I don’t think there’s enough education and that’s a key component to make people understand if the siren goes off why is that happening."

Because of the confusion, there is a current movement across the state to come up with a guidance of best practices that will hopefully be adopted everywhere. 

“Most areas it’s just tornado use but now there’s a push, and we’re addressing it, for those straight-line winds," said Ziegler.

The current draft of the best practices would recommend sounding the siren for tornado warnings and when the wind is over 80 miles an hour in severe thunderstorms, "The damage profile for 80 mph wind and EF-0 tornado are the same,” said Ziegler.

That proposed criteria would mean each county would hear a siren only once or twice according to yearly averages. Waukesha County is in favor of that new guidance and hosted a meeting to discuss a change with local police departments last week, "Give our recommendations to come more in alignment with what the rest of the state is looking to do," said Gary Bell.

The best practices guidelines are expected to be formally introduced in October, but Waukesha County is hoping to make a change as soon as possible.

With all of today's technology, some may think that outdoor sirens are even necessary, but emergency officials still recommend them for public outdoor spaces like parks, marinas, and fairgrounds where a siren will likely warn people first. 

Here is a list of current policies for counties and cities in southeast Wisconsin:

Fond du Lac County: 47 sirens in the county only sounded for tornado warnings. Village of Brandon handles sounding the siren on their own.

Sheboygan County: About 31 sirens in the county only sounded for tornado warnings.

Dodge County: All sirens in the county only sounded for a tornado warning.

Washington County: Each municipality is responsible for sounding their own sirens. Consensus is to sound for tornado sirens only.

Ozaukee County: About 30 sirens in the county only sounded for a tornado warning.

Jefferson County: Sirens are only sounded for a tornado warning. County sounds sirens for all communities except Waterloo and Whitewater, who also just sound for tornado warnings.

Waukesha County: County handles tornado sounding for 11 communities for tornado warnings and severe thunderstorm warnings with wind over 58 mph and 1" hail. City of Waukesha, City of Brookfield, and New Berlin handle siren sounding are their own with the same criteria as the county. Oconomowoc, Muskego and Mukwonago only sound the siren for tornado warnings.

Milwaukee County: Sirens across the county only sounded for tornado warnings.

Walworth County: Response not received by CBS 58.

Racine County: 24 sirens in county sounded only for tornado warnings.

Kenosha County: 35 sirens in county sounded for tornado warnings or severe thunderstorm warnings with wind gusts over 74 mph.

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