This last week, a severe weather "tornado drill" was issued about 9:30 a.m. in the state of Ohio.
All EMA, EBS, EAS, weather radios, teletypes, cable tv crawl, TV station crawls --- in short, EVERYTHING-- should have passed the word that there was a tornado drill issued by the National Weather Service.
The only problem is that many people didn't hear it.
Some towns blew their sirens, wailing for one to three minutes. But some didn't hear it. Why?
Their town doesn't have sirens.
There are a number of reasons why...and it differs for every community.
Some can't afford them. Some systems have fallen into disrepair. Some no longer use them... thinking they are a remnant of the cold war and the fear of a nuclear bomb.
But in the Mid-Ohio-Valley, the problem is the same thing that many people incorrectly assume will save them... the hills. Siren systems do not travel over and around hills. The sound just dampens out and can't reach as far.
To install such sirens, every few miles through the town, may be an investment in public safety. But in these days of cell phones, cable TV, Internet bulletins and more, more people can be reached through other means than an expensive and vulnerable siren system.
I am reminded of my days as a Boy Scout Camp counselor in the mid-1970s. We had a single siren mounted at one end of our large lake, and when triggered, it could be heard throughout the immediate area. Every scout could hear it, assuming there wasn't already high wind or thunder booming. We even tested it once a season, if only to assure us that it was working and that the staff knew what to do.
Part of the problem was that the inner city scouts who came to northern Michigan from inner city Flint and elsewhere, never had heard one before. They didn't know what a tornado was. They'd never seen a wild fire. They didn't know how to cook over a fire.
So, the difference between one long blast of the siren and three rising and failing wails, really didn't translate for these guys. (Staff was supposed to remember that three rising and falling wails was the sign for fire, and to report for assignments. One long blast was a tornado warning or severe storm.) Other than the tests, I'd never heard the system used.
But one summer, I was near the lake when a lightning strike hit and killed one of our lifeguards. There was no warning. A storm was coming, we could hear it, and everyone was out of the water, on the trail going back to camp when it struck. There was nothing to do.
And one year, as I rode up the central highway north into northern Michigan, we had to pass through raging line of severe storms. Tuning around the radio dial, we heard reports that night from some local station who described damage and warnings issued for various counties... with no thought as to identifying where he was broadcasting from. The information was useless for us because we couldn't tell where it was coming from.
So, even though the technology was there, the warning systems don't always work.
It's one of the reasons why I urge every citizen to be responsible for their own family's safety... and get a weather radio programmed for their own county with battery back-up. Technology has advanced beyond the siren system, but we have to take individual responsibility to keep up with it. We can't expect some government agency to sound a warning siren and interrupt our lives to take care of us.
And that's the real siren's song... to be lulled into complacency!