Tornado warning sirens: Do we still need them?

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As you know, this is peak severe weather season. If you're from the upper Midwest, you know the skies can be unpredictable.

Times are changing, as is technology. So when it comes to tornado warning sirens, do we still need them? For starters, they've been around for decades.

"A lot of the sirens came out during the Cold War, World War II era. When we were worried about the bad bombs, so to speak," National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Heitkamp said.

Many years later, cities added weather notification to that warning system. But even today, some question if they're relevant.

"Years ago, people respected mother nature. When they heard the sirens go off, they went to their place of safety. Now, when people hear the sirens, they go outside looking for it. There's really some debate within the weather and emergency management community on how useful these sirens actually are. Should they be activated? It's based upon the public's reaction of that word of warning," Heitkamp said.

Like with anything else, technology has played a huge role.

"Ten years ago, who would've known the technology we hold in our hands would be doing the things they're doing now. Twenty or thirty years from now, it's hard to say. I would think the way technology is changing so much, there will be other methods to get that warning and information as we're such a mobile society," Heitkamp said.

The National Weather Service Sioux Falls office oversees 45 counties. Some, more rural communities are still caught in the middle of old habits and new ways.

For example: Lyon County, Iowa. Arden Kopischke is the county's emergency manager.

"There's a lot of communities that still blow their sirens for 6 or 7 a.m. wake-up, the noon whistle, the evening. Some towns don't blow it at all. Some have tornado and city sirens. Some have both," Emergency Manager Arden Kopischke said.

Heitkamp says having different sirens for different reasons can be a huge source of confusion.

"The National Weather Service is working with the emergency manamgement community around the state, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa to set a recommended set of guidelines, best practices, that says we'll recommend sirens be activated for things like strong winds or tornadoes so we can incorporate and adopt that and say no matter where you go in the United States, it means this. Hopefully that'll diminish the confusion by the public and let people react accordingly."

Whether that siren is the first to notify you during a storm or not, concern only grows now with social media.

"It's not good for some because it makes people go outside to look for it, become amateur weather chasers, they want that picture on their phone to be the first to post it. Sometimes getting the message really early isn't serving the correct purpose. It brings people out when we're trying to get them in," Kopischke said.

"Be careful, be careful what you do. There will be consequences to that. We have way too many people now that hear that word of warning and going outside looking for a tornado, putting themselves and others in harms way. Until something like that occurs, it'll probably continue. It'll take some type of disaster to wake someone up to realize how dangerous doing something like that actually is," Heitkamp said.

While we can thank technology for more advanced notification, he says that siren is still very much an important part of telling you to take cover.

"The outdoor warning siren is just one piece of warning technology, one piece in the emergency response team's tool kit. You should have other ways to receive that warning and information and not only rely on the siren," Heitkamp said.

Within the 45 county region of the Sioux Falls National Weather Service office, all sirens are in working order and properly maintained with monthly testing.