Warning sirens often can't be heard indoors

Working from a lift Radicom employee Scott Runyard performs maintenance on a tornado siren April 24 on Haligus Road in Huntley.
Working from a lift Radicom employee Scott Runyard performs maintenance on a tornado siren April 24 on Haligus Road in Huntley.

So you didn’t hear the warning sirens when the National Weather Service called two tornado warnings for McHenry County over 10 days last month?

There are two simple explanations as to why.

The first is coverage area – larger cities aside, siren coverage area for much of McHenry County isn’t very good. Even in places where it is – Crystal Lake several years ago replaced its eight old warning sirens with 15 new ones – they can be hard to hear in a storm and through modern construction.

The second and more important reason is that such sirens were never meant to warn people already in their homes, which is why Crystal Lake and other towns refer to them as “outdoor warning sirens.”

The Northwest Herald gets calls after such events from people concerned that they didn’t hear the sirens. So does the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency, Director David Christensen said. His home is three blocks from a siren, and he can’t hear it indoors.

“We hear it all the time. They’re meant to get outdoor people indoors,” Christensen said.

The good news is that people have numerous and better options – which should be common sense given that Illinois is no stranger to severe weather – with which to get adequate warning.

The idea that outdoor warning sirens are meant to alert people indoors is one of the dangerous tornado myths – such as taking time to open windows to “equalize pressure” or that highway underpasses provide adequate shelter – that experts are fighting to dispel.

McHenry County does not have a cohesive grid of warning sirens, and building one would set the county back at least $18 million, Christensen said. He said he wants a study done of what areas are, in fact, covered.

A warning siren under optimal conditions has an effective range of about a half-mile. Their shortcomings within that radius are laid out in the McHenry County Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan, a 2010 document meant to act as a guideline for protecting the county from the effects of natural disasters.

The plan also qualifies the county to receive federal funding for projects that lessen the effects of them.

“Outdoor warning sirens can reach many people quickly as long as they are outdoors. They do not reach people in tightly-insulated buildings or those around loud noise, such as in a factory, during a thunderstorm or in air-conditioned homes,” the report states.

But people have multiple ways to get advance warning of severe weather, both in their homes and on their person.

Homes should have a NOAA all-hazards weather radio, which emits a tone and a message upon receiving a warning. Unlike older radios, new models have the capability to sound a warning only for your particular county.

Smart phones also can act as warning systems. Owners can get warnings tailored to their exact location, and the county has had the capability since 2012 to send warnings to any phone, regardless of area code, based on tower locations during an emergency.

People also can sign up for text alerts from weather or news agencies, such as The Weather Channel. The Northwest Herald’s text alerts include notification of severe weather watches and warnings.

A list of available warning systems is at www.mchenryaware.com, the county’s new emergency website. While redundancy is important, Christensen said your primary warning should come from an “official” source to add precious time to react. He also urged people not to disable their smart phones’ emergency alert function.

“If people don’t do that, we can save them,” Christensen said.

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