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Ready for the worst: Emergency siren policies can vary from town to town

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 11:22 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 7:40 a.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Elburn Trustee Dave Gualdoni stands in front of one of the village's emergency sirens. Elburn has changed its emergency siren alert process to include certain severe thunderstorms where hail is a significant risk.

When a severe storm rages, often bringing strong winds, booming thunder and dark clouds, the sound of a siren piercing through all of that chaos is meant to deliver the message that a particularly serious threat exists. Those nearby are advised to seek shelter immediately in the safest place possible.

It happened Monday night in North Aurora and Sugar Grove, after a funnel cloud was reported south of Route 30 in Aurora, though Don Bryant, director of the Kane County Office of Emergency Management, said it was not confirmed as being a tornado. And in May, sirens were sounded in Elburn, though there was no tornado threat, when hail as large as tennis balls fell in some areas.

The decision of when to set up such alarms is up to designated individuals in a community – individuals who are trained to respond to such events. There is little debate among those in the Tri-Cities and Kaneland areas that sirens would sound in the event of a tornado warning. However, the sirens can be activated in other situations, and the designated individuals say it's important to be sure to resort to the sirens only when necessary, for fear that residents might tune them out if they are sounded too often.

In Elburn, Brad Hruza, a weather spotter and storm chaser, criticized the recent sounding of the village's siren during the hail storm, saying it confused his neighbors and could lead to people taking the warnings less seriously. But Dave Gualdoni, an Elburn Village Board member who works closely with the Elburn Community Response Team, defended the decision, saying he felt it was necessary to warn people who might have been out at athletic fields and could have been seriously injured by such large hail.

The sirens

Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said the rules for setting off emergency sirens is "a local decision." She said communities aren't required to have the sirens at all, but the agency does have guidelines about testing. Sirens are tested at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.

"It's their decision about how to alert their citizens of a hazard," she said.

Gualdoni said there are five sirens in Elburn. This year, the siren policy was updated to include severe thunderstorm warnings, with wind speeds of at least 70 mph or golf ball-sized hail. Previously, he said, a tornado warning was necessary. He said he understood criticism from those who said Elburn should have done a better job of spreading the word about the change. He brought it up at a recent board meeting, and it appeared not all Elburn trustees were aware of the change.

"That's one of the big problems," he said. "There's a lack of information on our website."

Trustees and village staff, however, supported the sounding of the sirens during the hail storm. Village President Dave Anderson said it was the right decision.

Hruza, however, said he will head to the Elburn Village Board meeting on July 21 to speak on the issue. During a severe storm, Hruza posts frequent updates to his Facebook page, and he said there were many who were puzzled about why the sirens were going off. He said it's "dangerous to the public" to sound the sirens for hail because there are "complacent people" who won't heed the warnings if they are sounded too often.

"Sounding them for hail is unacceptable," Hruza said. "It really upset me when I heard that."

A fellow storm chaser, St. Charles-based Lorraine Mahoney, agreed that many people don't listen to warnings.

"We already have enough people not care about tornado sirens because they go off, and 90 percent of the time a tornado never comes," she said. "Sounding sirens more, I think, will make the situation worse."

However, she said if there were another tone associated with severe storm warnings, she would see how that would be useful.

Gualdoni agreed that sirens shouldn't be sounded often, and he said he's sensitive to that. He said he would sound them again in a similar situation because the idea is to get people inside and away from the large hail. He said Elburn doesn't set off sirens to start a parade or in celebration. He said it's not as if the area gets golf ball-sized hail often.

"At our baseball fields, we have no shelters, and that's what scares me the most," Gualdoni said.

The policies

Paul Bumba, the emergency preparedness coordinator for St. Charles, said he will monitor weather for days to be prepared for a severe weather outbreak, such as the one the area experienced Monday. He said the city has 12 outdoor warning sirens, and it's possible to set them all off, or only one of them. For instance, he said the siren near city hall is sounded at times for a ceremonial purpose.

He said other than that, the sirens are sounded for a tornado warning. He said it's important to note that a storm that resulted in a siren or sirens going off would have to be a threat to St. Charles. For instance, if the National Weather Service issued a Kane County warning, but the threat was in the Carpentersville area and moving away from the Tri-Cities, it is unlikely that St. Charles' sirens would sound. He said that if the sirens were sounded once or twice a year for emergencies, that would be a lot.

"If you activate the siren only when there's a true emergency, and people know and appreciate that, they certainly respond to it," Bumba said, adding that the concern is "you don't want to activate a siren, and people are at a heightened state and get very anxious, and have it be nothing. Then they get very angry."

Bumba said Elburn's policy is valid, but he said officials should do what they can to spread the word.

"What Elburn's doing, there's nothing wrong with it," Bumba said, adding that there should be a "robust" public information campaign to accompany such a change.

In Batavia, Fire Chief Randy Deicke, who also leads the city's Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, described a policy similar to Elburn's. Batavia's sirens can sound if a trained weather spotter reports a tornado or a funnel cloud. Butthey also could sound if winds speeds were reported at 58 mph or stronger, as well as when there is a tornado warning. Deicke said that sounding the sirens is a rare thing. There are eight sirens in Batavia, he said.

"It's always been an attitude that we don't want to get the citizens used to hearing the sirens, so that they start to ignore them," he said.

In Geneva, Fire Chief Steve Olson said the sirens are activated when a funnel cloud is spotted or when there are straight-line winds that could cause damage. He said they are sounded when there is reason to be concerned, and they are not often sounded.

In Sugar Grove, Village President Sean Michels said the village's sirens go off when Aurora's sirens go off. He said they were sounded Monday because of the funnel cloud spotted in Aurora.

Gualdoni said he consulted with many throughout the region who have input on creating policies on the sirens in Elburn. He said Elburn is in a different situation than some villages and cities, since the fire district covers a district much larger than the village, and it is the police department that helps create the policy. And while he said it's important to use the sirens sparingly, he said it's important to use them when necessary.

"The one time you don't sound it and something bad does happen, what do you do?" he asked.

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