Outagamie County transitions away from tornado sirens
APPLETON - If you're waiting for Outagamie County's emergency sirens to warn you about a tornado, you've waited too long.
That's the message emergency management officials are spreading to anyone who will listen as the county transitions from the Cold War-era siren system to a mass notification system that relies on cellphone, text, email and landline alerts.
Lisa Van Schyndel, director of Outagamie County Emergency Management, and Craig Moser, the county's deputy administrator, are on a campaign to encourage residents to sign up for the county's AtHoc emergency notification system. Residents can register online at the Emergency Management website or by calling 920-832-5148.
The AtHoc system is the equivalent of having a siren in your pocket; you don't need to be within earshot of one.
"This is free and available to any person right now in the Outagamie County registers," Moser told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. "It's not impacted by wind speeds or whether they have the windows or doors open or if the TV's on too loud. They can get this notification 24/7/365 at their fingertips."
Van Schyndel suggests residents also purchase a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, download free weather apps and subscribe to mobile alerts from local news media like The Post-Crescent.
All of those tools can provide information about severe-weather watches and warnings in advance of the sirens, giving the public more time to seek shelter.
Outagamie County's policy dictates that the sirens will sound only after the National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning. Van Schyndel said it can take as long as three minutes after the warning for the county's computer system to map the coordinates and activate the sirens.
Outagamie County currently owns and operates 43 outdoor sirens. Another four sirens are owned by New London and connected to the county's system.
The outdoor sirens aren't going away yet, but the county has begun to reallocate its resources toward the AtHoc notification system.
Effective immediately, the county no longer will replace any sirens. Towns, villages and cities still could replace a siren, but it would be at their expense. A new siren costs about $25,000.
Effective January 2020, the county no longer will maintain the sirens. However, the sirens will continue to sound automatically whenever the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning.
Outagamie County spent $31,000 to purchase the AtHoc system, and it spends another $27,000 annually to maintain it.
County Executive Tom Nelson has embraced the transition to the AtHoc system.
"We have not just a fiduciary responsibility, but we have a moral responsibility to provide the public the latest, greatest technology to get information on severe weather in their hands as quickly as possible," Nelson said. "Sirens are a 70-year-old technology."
The sirens were designed for outdoor notification, and they don't cover all areas of the county.
Mark McAndrews, Buchanan's town chairman, is dismayed at the county's decision to transfer the siren replacement and maintenance costs to local governments. He recognized the siren system is dated, but he said it still offers value as a public warning service.
"We have thousands of school-age kids out participating in cross country, soccer, baseball, football, track all spring, summer and fall," he said. "They don't carry weather radios and smartphones with them out to practice, and many of their coaches don't either."
McAndrews said the sirens benefit anyone who's outside. "There's a ton of old farts like me who run around with $20 TracFones that don't have any apps on them," he said.
Van Schyndel said the AtHoc system would call McAndrews' TracFone if he registers for notifications. She said there also is some personal responsibility for people who venture outside when there are signs of threatening weather.
"You're not going to just have a tornado jump out of the sky" on a sunny day, she said. "There's going to be some type of cloud formation."
McAndrews said he was unaware of the policy change that requires the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning before Outagamie County will activate the sirens.
He understood that police officers and firefighters were authorized to have the sirens activated.
"They could call into the dispatcher and say, 'Hey, there's a tree or pieces of a house flying by my car. Would you turn on the sirens, please?'" McAndrews said. "The dispatcher on duty would just push the button. That was common practice."
Van Schyndel said that practice was abandoned years ago and that until April 2017, when the current policy was implemented, the activation of the sirens was at the discretion of Emergency Management, not law enforcement or telecommunicators.
The change in protocol to require a tornado warning from the National Weather Service was made to eliminate gray areas.
Emergency Management came under intense criticism five years ago after the sirens didn't sound during during an August 2013 storm that produced five tornadoes in the county. The storm caused about $36 million in damage.
"You're danged if you do, and you're danged if you don't," Van Schyndel said of the discretion in the old policy. "You have people on one side saying, 'It was just an awesome severe thunderstorm. Why would you sound the sirens and worry people unnecessarily?'
"If you didn't sound them, (they ask), 'Why didn't you sound them because my basketball hoop tipped over in my front yard.'"
The new policy puts the decision in the hands of professionals at the National Weather Service.
"We are not meteorologists," Van Schyndel said. "We don't know how to read weather."
The AtHoc system is programmed for more than weather alerts. It also can be used to notify residents of a disaster like a chemical spill or to advise them to seek shelter and lock their doors if a gunman is spotted in a neighborhood.