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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tornado siren upgrade in Sedgwick County nearly complete

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

The days of all-or-nothing sounding of the tornado sirens in Sedgwick County are dwindling to a precious few.

By early April, local emergency management officials say, all 147 sirens in the county will have the upgraded software that allows individualized activation.

“If you are out and about and you hear the outdoor warning devices, that means the area that you’re in is an area that is at direct risk of threatening weather,” Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said.

It used to be that people in a part of the county not affected by a threatening storm could ignore the sirens, he said.

“That’ll no longer be the case,” Duncan said.

Emergency management officials will be able to sound only those sirens that fall inside the geographic area covered by the warnings. The size of the warning areas, called “polygons,” vary from storm to storm, meteorologists say.

The upgrade transforms Sedgwick County from being the only county in the state still using the “all-or-nothing” approach to siren activation to the only one in which specific sirens can be sounded based on a specific storm’s projected path.

“We’re coming kicking and screaming from World War II technology into the 21st Century,” Duncan said.

The city of Andover also uses the upgraded software, Butler County assistant emergency management director Charlene Miller said.

In the rest of Butler and other counties in the Wichita metropolitan area, individual cities make the decision on when to sound their tornado sirens, officials said.

All of the sirens will be tested during the statewide tornado drill at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The upgrade in Sedgwick County, which was projected to cost $1.25 million, is on schedule to be completed by April 2, officials said.

The 147 sirens includes upgrades for Derby, Mulvane, Clearwater, Haysville, Viola, Cheney and parts of the city of Wichita. That total includes 27 new sirens, Duncan said.

The upgrade means residents should take sirens seriously and quickly seek shelter, emergency management officials said.

Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, which is based in Wichita, said the new software in the tornado sirens is a significant improvement for Sedgwick County. The county’s desire to reduce the number of sirens sounded when warnings are issued represents a stark contrast to a trend he finds disturbing.

“Numerous emergency managers across the central United States are reacting incorrectly to the events of last year,” Smith said, referring to the 550 tornado deaths in 2011, the highest number in decades.

More and more emergency management offices are sounding sirens for areas not threatened by severe weather, he said, and justify it by saying something like “better safe than sorry.”

“The evidence is rapidly accumulating that ‘erring on the side of safety’ is doing nothing but training people to ignore warning sirens,” Smith wrote last month in his blog, Meteorological Musings.

Based on research he has done, Smith wrote in his blog, “there is no question that complacency cost lives” last year.

Duncan said officials in Sedgwick County hope the transition to the upgraded sirens will reduce complacency.

Stan Finger can be reached at 316-268-6437 or at sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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