GRAND RAPIDS, MI. – Most of us at one time or another have heard the tornado sirens sounding during severe weather. Unfortunately, each county has slightly different criteria for sounding the sirens, plus most of the time the entire county will hear the warning even if it’s only for a portion of the county.
Ideally, sounding sirens for specific areas or cities is the way to go. As an example, Ionia County has the ability to do that through their Ionia County Central Dispatch. The county is fairly sparsely populated, but the biggest cities and villages like Lake Odessa, Portland, Ionia, Belding, and Orleans Township have sirens in place that can be activated independently of one another.
In Kent County, a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service for a certain area (such as southern Kent County) will automatically sound sirens countywide. That means those not necessarily in harm’s way will still hear the sirens in places like Cedar Springs, Rockford, and Sparta. Kent County officials say it’s too cost prohibitive to control each siren individually at this time…but they hope to be able to do that soon.
There are 27 tornado sirens in the city of Grand Rapids, and 80 or so across all of Kent County. Compare that with Ionia at just five countywide. It costs about $25,000 to install each siren, and additional monies to maintain them. But as we’ve seen in the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, they can and very often do save lives.
There is a misnomer that sirens warn people indoors too. While those that live within the three-mile audible range may hear the siren, it is truly intended as an outdoor warning siren. Those indoors should monitor local media or invest in a NOAA weather radio to help stay save.
Criteria is also something that needs to be considered when sounding the sirens. While the National Weather Service has a very well-defined policy for issuing a tornado warning, the sounding of the sirens are not so clear-cut county by county. For example, Kent will only sound the sirens when the NWS issues a tornado warning, if a tornado is sighted, or if sustained winds in excess of 60 mph occur. In slight contrast, Ionia County activates sirens if trained spotters see rotation, if something is confirmed by the NWS (either by a spotter or on radar), or for strong damaging straight line winds on a case by case basis.
It’s also important to note that damaging straight line winds can be stronger than some EF-0 and EF-1 tornadoes. We had a similar situation May 29, 2011 in Battle Creek in Calhoun County.
As a meteorologist, I highly recommend a NOAA weather radio to keep you and your family safe. It’s somewhat inexpensive and will alert you to watches/warnings/advisories 365 days a year with no subscription required. Click here for more information on them.