Debate over warning sirens heats up

A warning siren

April 21, 2011 4:01:04 PM PDT
After a story we aired Wednesday about tornado warning sirens, we've heard from many of you who want them.

"You don't have tornado warning signals here? Nothing? No sirens at all? That's kind of amazing for a place this size," said one viewer.

Click here to read Wednesday's story

State officials told ABC11 that with rolling hills, soundproof homes, and few tornados hitting the state each year, a warning system would be a waste of time and money.

"The short answer is that we don't have enough tornadoes to justify having sirens," said Patty McQuillan, NC Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

Local officials agreed.

"Each siren costs several thousand dollars to get set up and installed," explained Sarah Williamson Baker with Wake Emergency Management. "To get good coverage to ensure the public was safe, it would be very cost-prohibitive."

ABC11 researchers found top-of-the-line high-tech sirens on the market run about $30,000 each. One city in Oklahoma just spent more than $2 million installing them. Industry experts tell us to maintain them it would cost about $500 for every siren each year.

It's money that emergency officials claim isn't worth the tornado threat level here.

But is that changing? Are we seeing more storms?

"The honest answer is we don't know. Thunderstorms produce tornadoes. Are the number of thunderstorms increasing? There are too many to quantify," said Darin Figurskey with the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service says the number of reported tornadoes every year has increased slightly. That's possibly because there are more eyes on the skies.

"But there is [a] little Tornado Alley through here, through the Piedmont, Sandhills and Coastal Plains," said Figurskey.

In fact, North Carolina is in the top 10 for total number of killer tornados. Most hit at night. The state ranks in the top 15 for the strongest, most violent twisters.

So, what about the claim that a siren system would be less effective here because of our rolling topography? Other hilly states like Virginia and Tennessee use outdoor warning systems. Appalachian State University, nestled in the mountains, installed a high-tech siren system last year.

"Topography is obviously a challenge, it's not a barrier," said Seth Norris with Appalachian State Emergency Management. "When we had to consider the topography, all we had to do was simply put more sirens up."

Norris explained sirens at the top and bottom of hills provides complete coverage.

Do modern, sound-proof, homes make outdoor sirens less effective? Even though homes in other states that do have sirens are just as soundproof, the National Weather Service admits it's an issue anywhere.

"If an individual's in the bowels of a home or in a basement playing video games or doing whatever, that outdoor warning sign typically isn't meant for them," said Figurskey. "People need to understand all the technology available to them and use those to maximize their safety."

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