WASHINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Chief Meteorologist Chris Yates has responded to local concerns about storm alert sirens not going off during storms on Saturday.

Here is what he said in a Facebook post on Aug. 22:

We’ve heard a lot of folks express concern over why the outdoor alert sirens didn’t sound in Washington on Saturday. Our reporter Demetrios Sanders has been looking into it and received this statement from Melissa Ketcham of Tazewell County Consolidated Communications: “A severe weather incident occurred on Saturday August 20th, that affected the residents in the City of Washington, located in the northeastern part of Tazewell County. This was a fast-moving storm with several “pop-up” thunderstorms. The TC3 dispatch center was diligently monitoring warnings from the National Weather Service. It is our mission to ensure the safety of the citizens of Tazewell County. While fielding other calls throughout the county during this storm, the alert we received was acknowledged after the storm had already passed. We regret we were not able to provide the citizens with the siren alerts in a timely manner. We have already begun to look at internal processes to ensure this type of oversight does not happen again.”

This event serves as a good reminder that it’s important to have multiple ways to receive warning information and to not solely rely on outdoor sirens.

Outdoor alert sirens (incorrectly referred to as storm or tornado sirens often) can be used for a number of different reasons. Those reasons include:

  • – Severe Storms
  • – Tornado Warning
  • – Extreme Winds
  • – Earthquake
  • – Chemical Hazard/Hazardous Material Incident
  • – Biological Hazard
  • – An attack on the local community.

Obviously in Central Illinois they are sounded most often for severe storms and tornadoes, though the guidelines for sounding the sirens varies from county to county.

While the sirens should have sounded in this instance, it’s important to remember that these sirens are designed to alert people OUTDOORS. While you may hear them from inside your home when they are tested, it may become impossible to hear them over heavy rain, hail, strong winds and constant thunder.

Here are the other ways you can receive initial warning information in order of importance:

  • 1) NOAA Weather Radio
  • 2) CiProud 2 Go Weather App
  • 3) Wireless Emergency Alerts
  • 4) Outdoor Alert Sirens (Outdoor use only)
  • 5) Social MediaAny warning issued by the NWS will always reach NOAA weather radios first (assuming the transmitters are working).

While these alert county wide it’s a good first alert. The next best thing is to use a weather app that sends out location-based warnings, like our CiProud 2 go weather app (link in the comments). However, in order for those warnings to work properly you need to let the app track your location at all times.

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are a government funded alert system built into all modern phones, though can be turned on/off in the phone settings. Unlike our weather app, this feature does not track your location. Instead, the alerts are sent out to phones that are connected to cell phone towers located within a warning polygon.

We often here complaints that their WEA did not go off, even though they were located within a warning polygon. This is because your phone was likely connected to a cell tower that was just outside of the warning polygon. To be clear, there is no one perfect solution for this. At times, one of those methods will fail. This is why it’s important to have redundancies in place before severe weather occurs.

Once you get the initial warning be sure to tune into your local media (WMBD) for more information.

Chris also had a follow-up post on Aug. 23:

There were some good comments on my previous post about the outdoor sirens not going off in Washington on Saturday and I want to explore an extension of this topic further.

The purpose of this is to not sling arrows at anyone but to have a discussion on severe weather readiness, preparedness and when to take action.

I think we’re all in agreement that the outdoor sirens should have sounded and a spokesperson for Tazewell County Consolidated Communications said “We regret we were not able to provide citizens with the siren alerts in a timely manner.”

Now I ask, with or without the sirens, is there more that could have been done ahead of time? Is it strictly a communications issue or is there more that individuals themselves could have done? There were developing thunderstorms near Washington around 1:50 pm.

Those who have the CiProud2Go Weather app on their phone likely received lightning alerts between 1:50 pm and 2:00 pm. The cell that eventually became severe developed over the Illinois River between 2:15 pm and 2:30 pm. The Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued at 2:33 pm for quarter-size hail and damaging winds.

Now the criteria for setting off the outdoor sirens varies by county, but most counties don’t sound them for base-line severe storms with quarter-size hail and 60 mph winds. Of course, the storm ended up producing much larger hail and exceeded expectations, but that wasn’t known at the time the warning was issued.

Most counties likely would have sounded the sirens with the issuance of the Tornado Warning, which came at 2:44 pm. By this time, the storm had already been producing heavy rain, hail and strong winds over Washington for more than 10 minutes.

A few people referenced the Washington Fine Arts Fair which was going on Saturday and was greatly impacted by the storm. Using this event as an example, at what point should people out at the park sought shelter?

We often preach “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors”; in a perfect world people would have moved indoors at that point, at least 30 minutes before the worst arrived. It’s obvious there were communication issues within the county and I’m not sure how many real-time reports were getting back to the NWS. But is there more that can be done ahead of time? Feel free to chime in and let me know what you think.