HANCOCK COUNTY — When the skies turn dark and severe weather is forecast, residents expect to hear the familiar blare of a tornado siren, alerting them a twister could be nearby.
But in some parts of the county, there is no warning. Only silence.
Parts of the county are underserved by the area’s tornado warning system, Hancock County officials say; 26 sirens cover just 50 percent of residents, and several of those sirens are broken.
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For the past 18 months, emergency management officials have studied the issue, checking on each siren and evaluating how many residents can hear it.
What’s in place isn’t good enough, they say. Coverage is spotty, and the system is outdated. Emergency management director Misty Moore has asked Hancock County officials to consider an overhaul of the county’s storm warning system.
She proposes a nearly $500,000 project to upgrade the county’s current system, fixing sirens that don’t work and installing software that would make testing sirens easier; she’s also lobbying for the purchase of 20 new tornado sirens to be installed in areas around the county without them.
The proposal has garnered support from county officials, who say an adequate warning system is essential to protecting residents during severe weather. The county council has asked Moore to prepare a three-year plan to implement the project to make it more affordable.
Since 1950, 21 tornadoes have struck Hancock County, according the National Weather Service. Those storms have resulted in nearly 50 injuries and at least two deaths, records show.
Outdoor tornado sirens aren’t intended to be a primary notification of severe weather — weather radios are the fastest, most accurate and reliable way to get information about severe weather — but many residents rely on them, officials say.
Cellphone weather alerts and news reports tell residents bad weather is in the area, but tornado sirens let them know the storm is in their backyard and alert those without cellphones of incoming danger, Moore said.
“We have to have multiple means of reaching everyone,” she said. “I want to make sure all of our citizens are covered and want to make sure they can hear that in the event of bad weather. To do that, we need to revamp our system.”
Moore, who has overseen the county’s emergency response since 2014, said she’s unsure how long the current system has been in place, and evaluating the system is difficult.
Now, county officials rely on residents to tell them when a siren near their home didn’t sound; they try to avoid sounding the alarms when there isn’t severe weather so as to not alarm residents, they said.
A software update will allow county officials to see whether the sirens are sounding during their normal weekly test from a computer screen in the 911 center, Moore said.
More importantly, adding 20 sirens would cover an estimated 96 percent of residents, Moore said.
The entire east side of the county shares three tornado sirens — and the siren in Charlottesville doesn’t work — compared with Greenfield, where seven are installed inside city limits. The northwest side of the county, including Fortville and McCordsville, shares 12 sirens.
Three are installed near and around New Palestine, and one is set up on U.S. 40 near the Sugar Creek Township Fire Department.
At a county council meeting this week, officials discussed Moore’s proposal, saying it’s imperative officials address the issue. But nearly $500,000 at once is a costly endeavor, they said.
Councilwoman Jeannine Gray agreed, saying she’s underwhelmed by the attention that’s been given to the east side of the county, which she represents.
Siren coverage in Blue River, Jackson and Brown townships is a little light, she said.
Councilman Kent Fisk pointed to news reports about tornadoes ripping through Alabama and Louisiana earlier this week, saying at the very least the county needs to fix the broken sirens.
“I’m not saying we have to bite this all off at once,” Fisk said. “But we have to do something.”