“JEFFERSON CITY - Two of the fourteen tornado sirens in the state's capitol don't work. Those are in addition to two other sirens in Jefferson City that were fixed recently. All these siren failures fall during a year that is on track to break into the top five deadliest years for victims of tornadoes.
“The city chalks up the multiple siren failures to an aging system. The average tornado siren lasts about 50 years, about as long as those in Jefferson City have been operating. City officials say it's increasingly difficult to find replacement parts for the old sirens, which were initially intended to warn citizens who were outdoors of air raids.
“Jefferson City plans on replacing all of its 14 sirens within 12 to 24 months with new digital sirens that can broadcast a further distance and voice announcements. They also plan on rolling out a phone warning system that will call landlines and cell phones to warn of inclement weather.”
I spent part of my youth in Jefferson City. As state capital cities go, it has always been provincial in nature, more or less surrounded by anti-missile batteries and Minute Man ICBM launch complexes, and possessed of the misconception that some geographic feature will protect it from tornadic destruction.
Over the years since my departure, the cold war has ended, National Weather Service radar storm tracking has improved, and a city –wide warning system has been allowed to decay.
Jefferson City is not alone in this maintenance failure. The Cold War air-raid sirens were designed to alert people working outside to be certain to turn toward the bright flash so that they will be spared the horrors of watching western civilization destroyed. Today’s conditions differ. Those old Cold War warning sirens are now being placed into use to warn the populace of an impending disaster that can potentially be survived with adequate preparation and adequate warning. Adequate warning is the crux. If the warning sirens can’t be heard, they are merely non-functional relics of the Cold War.
During the Cold War’s earlier years, we attempted to place warning sirens where they could alert the greatest number of people to take cover. In the passing of time, the cities have decayed and urban sprawl has put greater numbers of people beyond the linear audibility limits. We have also become a much noisier place. Cars block the roads, most of them blaring some audio file at > 100 decibels.
Sirens were not designed to alert those inside buildings. An AM radio alert was intended to notify indoor workers of national emergencies.
“CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) was a method of emergency broadcasting to the public of the United States in the event of enemy attack during the Cold War. It was intended to serve two purposes; to prevent Soviet bombers from homing in on American cities by using radio or TV stations as beacons, and to provide essential civil defense information. U.S. President Harry S. Truman established CONELRAD in 1951. After the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles reduced the likelihood of a bomber attack, CONELRAD was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System on August 5, 1963, which was later replaced with the Emergency Alert System in 1997; all were administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“Unlike its successors, the EBS and EAS, CONELRAD was never intended to be used for severe weather warnings or local civil emergencies.”
In fact, the old Cold War sirens were minimally useful when first installed and can be nearly useless today. They require electricity to power them. Since power lines and grids are often damaged in tornadic storms, a battery back up is necessary for public safety. However, in a tornado or a tornadic thunderstorm, sirens may not be audible at all. I’ve been within 100 meters of a siren being used to alert a town and have been unable to hear the siren due to wind, hail, and rain.
The current plan in use in many cities, universities, and other locations – landline and cell line calling programs – is also hampered by power, cable, and tower losses in proximity to approaching storms. For these mechanisms to work warnings must be provided to the public at least 20 minutes prior to storms affecting target areas.
We live in an extremely remote and rural area. It is highly likely that we will lose power, cable/internet, landlines, and cell access during any major storm. The only thing that we can rely upon is a NOAA weather radio. During last April’s tornadoes, we were fortunate to have such a radio in the house. We now have two. Both are battery powered, automatically recharging, and one of them has a small hand-cranked, internal generator Reception quality is poor in quality but available despite the loss of power, cable/internet, and cell service that requires a powered booster to piggyback internet.
There are no perfect warning systems. There never have been. In all probability there never will be. Get your weather radio and learn to “Duck and Cover.” Now that the threat of nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union no longer exists, that old drill finally offers some real hope of survival.