INDIANAPOLIS — When a potent weather system moved through Indiana last November, bringing 28 tornadoes, it was up to local officials to decide if and when to trigger their emergency warning systems.
Some sounded their outdoor storm sirens as soon the National Weather Service issued a tornado “watch.” Others waited until the more urgent tornado “warning” was issued.
Proposed legislation in the Statehouse would change that, mandating that all communities follow a statewide emergency-warning protocol established by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. It would cover both storm sirens and the new technology-based “mass notification” systems like the one Howard County recently adopted, that sends automated warnings to cellphones, landlines and other devices.
Cost to the state of implementing the legislation, including monitoring counties to make sure they comply, may run as high as $400,000, according to a fiscal impact statement from the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency. It’s unknown what the potential cost may be to local communities.
The bill was filed by a lawmaker who fears confusion over what the storm sirens mean since there is no uniform standard for when and how they’re used.
“If you’re in Lafayette and you hear a weather siren go off, it might have an entirely different meaning than in Greenwood where I live,” said Republican state Sen. Brent Waltz. “I don’t care what the standards are, as long as citizens know what a siren means when it goes off.
Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, who chairs the House Local Government Committee where the bill has been assigned, has set a hearing on the legislation for Wednesday.
Some similar legislation, authored by then-Sen. Connie Lawson of Danville (now Secretary of State) was passed in 2008. It required the state Department of Homeland Security to gather information on existing storm sirens, establish minimal technical standards for new sirens and to define when those sirens should be activated.
But there was a catch: It only applied if counties agreed to provide the information and accept the department’s help. Not a single county has ever opted in.
John Erickson, Homeland Security spokesman, said the state can’t force counties to follow a uniform siren protocol nor demand that they install them. Nor can the department compel counties to provide information on their existing warning systems.
“They’re totally under local control,” Erickson said. “We don’t own them and we don’t maintain them. Counties have that responsibility.”
No state has a uniform standard method for sounding those public siren systems, nor is there a nationally accepted protocol for issuing the all-clear alerts.
But federal safety experts want that to change. In November, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology issued a report calling for nationwide standards for weather-emergency notifications, including outdoor sirens.
“Across the country, there is no standard method for sounding outdoor public siren systems, which has led to variations in siren usage, activation procedures, and sounding patterns among U.S. communities,” the report authors found.
That finding was based on the agency’s investigation of the deadly May 22, 2011 tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., claiming 163 lives. The high death toll was blamed in part on flaws in the warning-siren system. There were reports that some people ignored the sirens, didn’t hear them, or were confused by an all-clear siren triggered just before the tornado hit.
But developing a protocol for when a siren should be sounded may not be easy, since there’s disagreement even among experts.
Dan McCarthy, the National Weather Service chief meteorologist in Indianapolis, said the NWS doesn’t have a policy on when local officials should sound their weather sirens.
“We all have our own personal opinions about it,” McCarthy said. “But it’s up to local communities to make those decisions.”
One area of agreement: No one should rely on the sirens alone.
Erickson, of the state Department of Homeland Security, said the outdoor warning sirens were installed in many communities during the Cold War to warn residents of a potential attack. It was only later that they were used to warn residents of impending storms.
“They should be seen as a part of a larger warning system,” Erickson said. He advises residents to rely on a variety of tools, including weather radios, and TV and radio broadcasts.
A bill passed by the House Thursday may aid that system: It designates trained TV and radio engineers and technicians as “first informers.” It allows them to travel into areas restricted by weather emergencies or disasters to repair their damaged broadcast equipment so they can get back on air.
“The goal,” said the bill author, Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, “is to keep people safe and informed.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden