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Severe weather preparedness: What to do if you don't hear outdoor warning sirens

tornado siren
Posted at 1:52 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 19:24:05-04

Fond du Lac County officials say they're working to resolve issues with its outdoor warning sirens after they failed to activate Wednesday night when the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning in the area.

Bobbi Hicken, Fond du Lac County Communications & Emergency Management director, said she's working closely with the vendor that runs the software used to automatically activate the sirens to figure out what happened and resolve the issue.

Until then, Hicken said Fond du Lac County dispatchers will manually activate the sirens when the National Weather Service issues a warning.

"It is one way of getting the notification, but we know that so many people feel that that's very important and utilize those outdoor warning sirens," Hicken said. "So we want to make sure that we are using them efficiently and that they are there to be one means of alerting the public."

Hicken said the county tests the outdoor warning sirens at noon every Saturday. She said the sirens activate when the county sends out the signal on their end. It's the automated part she said didn't work properly Wednesday night and didn't receive the notification from the National Weather Service to activate the sirens.

"A live event is never the time to figure out it doesn't work," Hicken said. "We didn't want it to happen, but it happened in the middle of the night, in the middle of a thunderstorm. So the chances of people actually needing that notification through the outdoor warning sirens - we're very fortune that it wasn't a different situation. People do need to have multiple needs of notification. Any notification process can have problems."

Emergency management experts explain how people can be alerted to severe weather if outdoor warning sirens fail or aren't heard.

Paula Rieder, Outagamie County Emergency director, said outdoor warning sirens are useful tools, but not the only way people can be alerted of severe weather.

"An outdoor warning siren is just noise," Rieder said. "You should still act at that noise and find safety, but it’s not going to give you any great follow up information that helps you for where you need to go to be safe.”

She said weather radios are great for people in their homes, campers or cabins. Mobile weather apps from FEMA or the Red Cross can provide real-time alerts for people on the go.

Emergency Weather Preparedness
Sam Martin, Brown County Emergency Management coordinator, holds a weather radio Friday during an interview with NBC26.

“It’s great to have these other tools as redundancy to make sure you get information fast," Rieder said. "The great thing with a weather radio or an app is it’s going to give you specific information; where the storm is heading, what’s expected, timing, locations and what you should do; take cover, go to a shelter, if you’re outdoors, obviously find somewhere safe to be."

Andrew Beckett, spokesperson for Wisconsin Emergency Management and the state's ReadyWisconsin campaign, said it's important to have multiple alert systems handy.

"When it comes to alerting technology, things fail. You don't always hear the outdoor warnings. You may have forgotten to plug in your weather radio and it doesn't go off. You may not have wireless emergency alerts enabled on your cell phone," Beckett said. "That's why it's important to have backups in place so that you get that critical alert to get to safety as soon as possible."

Sam Martin, Brown County Emergency Management coordinator, said an emergency preparedness safety plan is also important. He said people should have a three-day supply of food, water and medications for family members and pets, a flashlight with plenty of batteries, cash in small bills to buy necessities if power lines are down, and at least a quarter tank of gas.

In the case of a tornado, people should go down in a basement or interior room with no windows.

Martin said people should be alerted to and prepared for all types of weather situations.

"Fortunately, we don't get significant tornadoes very often here in Brown County. So that's a good thing," Martin said. "The bad part of that is people aren't really use to them. There can be a perception that it doesn't happen here so it must not apply to us. Unfortunately what we do get is straight-line winds, which can cause almost as much damage as a tornado."

Martin said it's also a good idea to have an emergency contact who's out of the county, or ideally out of state.

Residents in Brown, Outagamie and Fond du Lac Counties can also register for public emergency alert notification systems, which sends public safety alert messages occurring within neighborhoods.

People can sign up here: