We need to have a talk about outdoor warning sirens
Notice my wording there - *outdoor* warning sirens.
Let's start with the reason that outdoor warning sirens exist. They're out there for one reason, and one reason only. To alert people who may be outdoors that it is not safe to be outdoors, and to head indoors to seek shelter and further information. That's it.
Criteria are different across the country, but in Champaign County the outdoor warning sirens are sounded if, and only if, a tornado or a developing tornado has been sighted approaching the area. They're not sounded for a Tornado Warning. They're certainly not sounded for a Severe Thunderstorm Warning (even though severe thunderstorms can produce damage on par with weak tornadoes!).
The outdoor warning sirens did not sound on Sunday evening when a brief tornado touched down in southwest Champaign. Browsing various social media pages in the last 24 hours, I'm seeing a problem. This could have been much, much worse, and one day it may be. What I'm seeing out there tells me that if that day comes, we're not ready.
It's 2018 - let's start preparing for severe weather like it.
Step 1 - Forget about the sirens! Do not sit in your home and wait to hear the sirens sounding before you seek shelter. This is flawed in so, so many ways. Like Sunday, the tornado could be brief, hidden by rain, or touch down on your home before any confirmation of the tornado has been relayed to the folks who flip the switch on the siren. Perhaps the tornado cuts power to your neighborhood and the sirens don't sound. DON'T WAIT UNTIL YOU HEAR THE SIREN TO TAKE ACTION. That is not what they're there for, and we need to stop wishing/acting as if it is.
Step 2 - Buy a weather radio. Buy a weather radio. Buy a weather radio. Weather alert radios should be a requirement in every home in the Midwest, just as smoke detectors are. I've heard it all - I get it if you don't want to be notified for a flash flood warning in another county. I don't either! They're easy to program, and if you need help setting your radio to alert you exclusively for tornado related alerts for your specific area, I would be happy to do it myself. THIS is how you should be receiving life saving weather alerts, first and foremost.
Step 3 - Suppose you're out and about? I appreciate the fact that some folks don't have a smart phone for one reason or another. That said, I know that 95% of you do. Let's download some apps. First, download the FEMA app. On the main menu, click Weather Alerts. Add your location(s). You'll now receive life saving alerts for your location.
Now, download the NOAA Weather Radar and Alerts app. (double up, just to be sure!)
Finally (specific to Champaign County, IL), download the Chambana Weather app (android only today, iOS within a week!). I sent out a push notification to all devices 30 minutes before the storm hit, warning specifically for damaging winds and brief tornado touchdowns. The Chambana Weather app does not automatically relay all watches/warnings from the National Weather Service. Instead, it brings an element of human curation specific to Champaign-Urbana. In cases such as this, before a warning is ever issued, I'll do my best to let you know that you need to be watching for the actual warning.
Step 4 - When severe weather is likely, find your favorite local TV or radio station, and keep it tuned. Send these folks a box of chocolates around the holidays. They take a lot of flack for interrupting TV programs that can also be found on the internet to bring you life-saving up to the minute information.
Step 5 - When alerted, ACT! I hear too many stories of folks who did everything right and got the warning delivered in plenty of time, and then did nothing. Imagine being warned that a bomb is going to go off in your neighborhood in 20 minutes, but choosing to wait until you see someone actually lighting the fuse before seeking shelter. The moment you start thinking "false alarm rate", is the moment that your home is leveled and we're again saying "they would have survived if they were underground".
The folks issuing and relaying warnings did their jobs to their best ability yesterday in a difficult situation with hard to detect tornadic circulations that were appearing with little warning. A tornado warning was issued for Champaign County at 1:57 PM. The warning said that the storm, capable of producing a tornado would hit Champaign at 2:20 PM. That is 23 minutes worth of time to get yourself prepared, if you've got a method of having that information delivered to you in a timely manner. If you were waiting on the outdoor warning sirens, your lead time was 0 seconds.
If you're feeling miffed because you felt out of the loop, it just means we have work to do! I'm going to do my best to continue to develop new creative ways to get this information into your hands in an easy to digest way, but I need help from you all too. A lot of the habits we've got when it comes to this kind of thing are stuck in the 1970's, and we've just got to shake some bad old habits and take some responsibility for our lives, and the lives of those we love.