Sectorize the Sirens, Please

A tornadic thunderstorm passed across Topeka this evening bringing considerable hail and a small amount of wind damage. The tornado touched down northeast of the city.

Funnel cloud over Topeka. Photo by Taylor Buckley.

Large hail in Topeka.  Photo by Taylor Buckley.

The National Weather Service did a good job of warning on this storm. Here is the radar of the storm along with the red polygon outlining the tornado warning:

Now, look at the lower right-hand side of the photo. Lawrence is clearly outside of the tornado warning polygon. Yet, the tornado sirens in Lawrence were blaring with people going about their business.  Why? Because the tornado warning clipped the northwest edge of Douglas Co. and, like most jurisdictions with sirens, they are sounded on an "all or nothing basis."

Sky in downtown Lawrence minutes before the sirens were sounded.
The "all or nothing" approach was reasonable in the '50s and '60s in the early stages of the tornado warning program because we genuinely were that imprecise in our warnings (i.e., warning entire counties and cities).

But now, meteorology can provide accurate warning of the path of tornadoes, as we did this evening. It is past time to start selectively activating sirens. Give us a call at AccuWeather at (316) 266-8000 and ask for sales. Our SelectWarn® system will solve this problem.

Otherwise, we train people not to pay attention to tornado warnings and that is a dangerous lesson to learn.

P.S. My son-in-law Bill Cross graduated law school which is why we were in Lawrence today. Congratulations, Bill!!

ADDITION: Spectacular photo of the tornado near Lake Perry here.

BUMPED due to tornado coverage as this is an important issue.


  1. I totally agree with this. We see this all of the time in the Midwest, and if leads to people ignoring the sirens.

  2. Mike,
    I live near a nuclear power plant in Iowa, even though the plant is in the next county, when you sound the sirens for any issue happening in this this county no matter the location, by "Federal Regulations" all the sirens in the county must be sounded. Another worthless one size fits all regulation that makes no sense in the real world.

  3. Richard,

    That may be true for nuclear issues, but there is no federal regulation requiring countywide tornado siren activation. Thanks for the comment. You are right -- it makes no sense.


  4. There is some NRC rule that requires that a county's sirens within a nuclear plant's emergency warning area to all be linked and not be operated independently. We attempted to get some flexibility to operate them within reason since the county is 30 x 24 miles. This was rejected by the NRC so we basically have one button and all of the sirens go no matter what.

  5. Richard,
    Thanks for educating me and the blog readers!

  6. I don't think the "all or nothing" is true for Lawrence.

    There was a tornado warning a few years back where it clipped the NW edge of the county and though the weather radio went off, they didn't sound the sirens for that one.

    An even better example is later on Saturday night, there was a tornado warning for a large part of southern Douglas and they didn't sound the sirens for that one either.

    Based on this, the warning polygon came awfully close to including Lawrence at one point:

    My personal guess is that they sounded the sirens due to the close proximity to Lawrence and the fact that anyone traveling west out of Lawrence could end up in the middle of it. Were they being overly cautious? Possibly.

    I do agree that all-or-nothing soundings of the sirens can be harmful in furthering "siren apathy" but Lawrence/Douglas is definitely NOT one of those all-or-nothing communities.

  7. You may be right about Lawrence, but I then strongly disagree with the decision to sound the sirens yesterday. The whole point of the polygon warning system is to cut down on false alarms. The officials who made the decision to sound the sirens in Lawrence created an unnecessary false alarm that "trains" people that the sirens do not necessarily mean danger.


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