When the Sirens Sound

The recent devastating events in Mississippi, Alabama and just this week in Joplin and Oklahoma have been especially troubling for meteorologists.
Hundreds of lives have been lost, even with early warnings.
The sirens sounded in Joplin up to 20 minutes before the deadly tornado struck and several reports explained that residents ignored the warning because the sirens "sound all the time."
Overuse of the sirens can become a huge problem, but it doesn't seem to be a problem here in Texoma.  
The Sirens in Wichita Falls have sounded just a handful of times in the past 10 years.  
So it is important to take them seriously and know what the sirens actually mean.  
Here in Texoma, that answer could depend on where you live.

Outdoor warning systems in Texoma have changed dramatically in the past 10-15 years. We asked several Wichita Falls residents when they believe the sirens are sounded.

"I think when the wind reaches above 70mph."

"Anytime we get bad weather."

"There is a tornado near or about Wichita Falls."

Obviously there is some confusion on what the sirens actually mean. One thing is for sure, if you are outside and you hear that loud long blast,  you likely are already in a dangerous situation.

"If there is a tornado approaching the city limits, Wichita Falls, or a tornado has been cited inside the city limits or 58mph winds sustained and the definition of sustained is 3 minutes," said John Henderson, Wichita Falls Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.

That is the Wichita Falls siren policy. John Henderson is constantly watching the skies to see if the city needs to be warned. I was a bit confused by his wording and asked why they wait for a tornado to touch the ground before they sound the sirens, but he cleared that up quickly.

"Whether it is above the city or to the side of the city, but a tornado above the city is still approaching and probably would have been set off before that the way that technology is today," said Henderson.

Technology has improved greatly recently. In fact, the city is currently replacing old sirens so that certain sirens can be sounded while others don't need to be set off. The new sirens can also broadcast messages through the speakers in an emergency situation. Our ability to track storms has also greatly improved.

"Technology is so much better than what happened in 79 and even prior to that," said Henderson.  "That now we are able to pinpoint a lot smaller areas."

That means that if the sirens are sounding in your neighborhood, we are tracking a storm that will very likely impact your area and you need to take action.  After talking to several emergency managers across Texoma it seems many siren policies are the same, however they can vary from town to town.

Iowa Park's policy states the sirens will sound "in the event a dangerous cloud is spotted." This may mean that Iowa Park's sirens would sound and the same storm would not cause the sirens to sound in Wichita Falls. Down in the Dallas Fort Worth area, many towns sound the sirens if large hail is moving in. Policies can vary drastically, so make sure you know your town's policy.

Its important to remember, sirens are meant to be an outdoor warning system.  
There are enough sirens to cover every inch of Wichita Falls, but you should not depend on them if you are indoors.  The best way to be warned is still a weather radio.  
However if you do hear the sirens you need to know what to do. One of our facebook friends in Nocona asked:

"I am so terrified of tornadoes. When I hear of a watch I'm getting everything ready. The question I have is once the sirens goes off how long do we have to get to a storm shelter?"

The amount of warning can change for every weather event.  Find out what the siren policy is for your town and when the sirens sound, take these steps:

If you are outside immediately take shelter indoors.  Turn your TV to Skywarn 6 for more information.  In a high wind event stay away from windows.  In a tornadic event take shelter underground or in the center of your home.
Take Joplin as the prime example, if the sirens sound please take them seriously.  
Whether it ends up being a false alarm or a large tornado, take shelter.  It could save your life.