Breaking down West Michigan’s patchwork tornado siren system

Posted at 11:25 PM, Jun 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-05 23:44:46-04

WEST MICHIGAN — The Portland Tornado hit at 2:30 p.m. on June 22, 2015. It was the width of a football field and traveled about four miles. That day, there were no sires, no tornado warnings, not even a severe thunderstorm warning. Here in Michigan, that's exactly what we need to plan for.

Look at the radar scans from that day.

Portland Tornado

See the small change in color from green to red, that is the tornado on radar. "The smaller tornadoes like we have, the very short lived tornadoes are very difficult for us to pick up on radar ahead of time," explains Jim Maczko, NWS Grand Rapids Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

The day of the Portland tornado there was thunder, lightning, hail, strong winds...but no siren. But even if there had been sirens experts say not to rely on them alone, "With sirens they could break down. They could be struck by lightning. It could have some kind of technical error and fail.”

Not only can sirens fail, but depending on where you are those sirens mean different things.

On the map below, in the counties highlighted in red sirens go off for tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service or a tornado sighting by a trained spotter. Sirens also go off for winds over 70 miles per hour.

Tornado Map Green Red

But for the counties in green, sirens only go off for tornado warnings and confirmed sighting. They will not air for strong winds, which Maczko says is more of a problem here, “Typically we are under greater risk for wide spread straight line wind damage. Which means a large storm across a county or two counties that can produce massive damage.”

Straight line winds can produce damage similar to a small tornado; trees down, tress on homes, mobile homes tipped off their foundations, and roof damage.

Further complicating things, who manages and triggers the sirens? In the red and green counties sirens can be located at fire stations, schools, post offices, county and city buildings, even private property, but all of them are controlled by the counties' individual central dispatches.

Kalamazoo County stands alone. All of the sirens are privatized and each owner has a different protocol for airing those sirens. There is no way to specifically what those sirens are warning you about, unless you can talk to who sounded them.

Tornado Map Kzoo

Cass County is unique as well. Sirens will air there for both NWS Tornado Warnings as well as NWS Severe Thunderstorm Warnings. Severe Thunderstorm Warnings include strong and damaging winds.

Tornado Map Orange

A handful of counties have implemented a new technology for alerts. Nixel, Code Red and Rave are all alert systems that residents are urged to subscribe to. They allow emergency managers, like Durk Dunham, to send push notifications through to people via email, text and phone.  Dunham says,"The main message is get something on your phone. Everybody has a phone, everybody has some type of cell phone."

Tornado Map Blue

Mackzo says, if you are not in one of those five counties you still have a shot at getting a warning directly on your phone. "We do have wireless emergency alerts now so when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning your cell phone will alert for you."

After a month of research on this topic, it's clear that outdoor tornado sirens are outdated. The rules for them across counties are so different, they cannot be relied on as a fail-safe warning.

*We did not hear back from several West Michigan counties as well as the City of Battle Creek whose sirens are independent of Calhoun County. Because we did not have their policy and procedures, they were left off of our maps.

Tornado Map All Counties