GREENFIELD — For those who live in earshot of a tornado siren, the blaring warning seems like it should be able to be heard for miles.
But when it comes to alerting Hancock County residents to the danger of approaching storms, experts say the antiquated system serves a last resort. With tornado season just around the corner, public safety officials are in the process of making sure the county’s outdoor warning system is up and running properly. At the same time, they’re reminding citizens that tornado sirens shouldn’t be their primary means of monitoring the weather.
The siren tones can be heard by people outdoors from a radius of only about one mile, and that’s under perfect conditions – meaning no obstructions and no noise (including the roar of a twister barreling down), Hancock County emergency management director Larry Ervin said.
“It’s a continuing problem that people are continuing to rely on the tornado sirens,” said Ervin, who recommends citizens invest in a weather radio. “Obviously, they’re an important part of the system, but they are not the most effective means of getting your warning.”
Last week, a statewide tornado siren test included the 26 storm sirens spread throughout Hancock County. Calling it a test is somewhat of a misnomer, however, Ervin said, because that would suggest county officials received results.
The newest sirens in the county were purchased by Vernon Township in 2012. The next-newest ones date to 1999 and are in Greenfield. They are the only ones with the capability to kick back data during a test run to confirm the system worked properly.
Older models don’t have that feature, so officials don’t receive an alert if the siren malfunctioned. Public safety officials instead depend on neighbors who live nearby to let them know if a tone didn’t sound.
“There are some (sirens) out there that are as old as me,” said Ervin, adding, “I’m closer to 60 than I am 50; let’s leave it at that.”
The sirens are spread throughout the county but not evenly; most are situated in highly populated areas in hopes of alerting the most people in the event of a storm.
It’s not that the sirens are unreliable; it’s that most people don’t understand their purpose, said Dave Riley.
Riley, owner of Speedway-based All Hazard Warning Technologies, has an annual contract to inspect the sirens in Greenfield.
He said that people should not expect to be alerted to a severe storm by the sirens if they’re sitting in their living room.
“It is to alert the public that is basically outdoors,” Riley said. “If you heard it inside, that’s a bonus.”
The sirens are owned by each of the individual towns, which are also charged with their inspection and maintenance.
A new siren costs about $20,000, Ervin said. Emergency management’s budget for the year is less than $5,000.
Upkeep can be expensive.
Batteries for the sirens, for example, have to be replaced about every four years and cost $500 each, Riley said.
“It’s a very valuable asset to have, and like anything else, it has to have some maintenance on it,” he said.
The peak of tornado season occurs from April to June, but a twister can strike any time of year. Hancock County’s own history ought to tell residents it’s never too early to get ready, officials say. Since 1951, at least 20 tornadoes have hit Hancock County, and they occurred at all times of the year, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ervin recommends purchasing a weather radio with a battery backup that will function even in the event of a power outage.
During an emergency, National Weather Service forecasters interrupt routine broadcasts and send a special tone to weather radios.