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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tornado siren wailing on a clear day not a malfunction, official says

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky over Wichita when a tornado siren went off just west of the Delano neighborhood Wednesday evening.

The siren sounded for less than half a minute before falling silent again. Sirens wailing on sunny days has been happening often lately, prompting questions on Facebook and Twitter about malfunctions or unexpected storms.

But neither of those possible explanations is the answer, Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said.

“This is part of a process called ‘calibration’ which is necessary to finalize the programming and installation of the new outdoor warning device receivers,” Duncan said in an e-mail response to questions.

Sedgwick County is upgrading its outdoor warning system with software that allows for only those sirens inside the geographic area of a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service. Currently, emergency management officials deploy an “all or nothing” approach to the sounding of tornado sirens in the county when a warning is issued.

All but one of the 147 sirens in the county system have been installed or upgraded with the new software, Duncan said. But only 65 have been programmed and calibrated, he said.

That leaves more than 80 to go — which means residents will hear a siren go off on clear days a lot over the next few weeks.

“It is the sound of progress as we move closer to the completion of our project,” Duncan said.

Jordan Watkins said on Twitter that he heard two sirens go off on Wednesday.

“I’ve been so confused,” he added.

There is no timetable for when the system upgrade will be complete and the county can shift away from the “all or nothing” approach, Duncan said. Frequent rains late in the winter and early in the spring slowed the installation process considerably because the ground was too wet for heavy equipment to operate on.

Some of the remaining sirens have issues beyond calibration, Duncan said.

“Because the issues of the remaining 82 outdoor warning devices vary, the amount of time to deal with each individual issue will vary and it is literally impossible to estimate a completion date,” he said.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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