Siren confusion prompts look at guidelines

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 27, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

When emergency sirens blared in Albert Lea during Thursday evening&8217;s storm, plenty of people were confused and unsure of what to do, especially when the sirens went off the second and third times.

&8220;When a warning hits, we will sound for a warning. We will sound it if we have an additional sighting,&8221; said Freeborn County Director of Emergency Management Mark Roche.

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Because of the confusion over what the sirens meant and what people should do about it, the Albert Lea Police Department is looking at revising its guidelines on sounding the siren.

Though no one sighted an on-the-ground tornado near Albert Lea during the storm, the National Weather Service&8217;s radar detected a funnel forming nearby after the tornado warning had already been signaled. The protocol in those cases is to set off the siren again, Roche said.

&8220;We wanted to make sure everybody knew what was going on,&8221; said Albert Lea Police Department Lt. Jeff Strom, who made the decision to continue setting off the emergency siren Thursday evening. &8220;Initially, the sirens go off for about three minutes, and if someone doesn&8217;t hear it in the initial three minutes then people aren&8217;t going to hear what&8217;s going on.&8221;

There were tornadoes in counties west and northwest of Freeborn County. In Freeborn County, people made reports to authorities of seeing a funnel cloud.

The State Patrol, the National Weather Service, stormspotters, the Freeborn County Sheriff&8217;s Office and the ALPD can all trigger the sirens for any emergency, not just a tornado.

When the sirens go off, people should grab a portable radio and a flashlight and head for shelter, Strom and Roche said. They should not go outside and look for a twister, they said. Tornadoes travel fast and going outside could be the difference between life and death.

Another thing not to do is call 911 to find out what&8217;s going on. In the case of a tornado warning, dispatchers need to send out and coordinate tornado spotters along with their other duties of emergency management coordination.

Roche recommends the purchase of a weather radio, which will monitor the area&8217;s weather. Even normal television and radio stations usually do a good job of keeping communities informed about why a siren is going off, he said.

&8220;Treat every siren as an emergency,&8221; Roche said. &8220;It&8217;s part of the emergency alert system.&8221;

One problem Thursday might have been the sirens themselves. At least one was reportedly not working. Most of the sirens&8217; coverage areas overlap so that if one siren goes out, people can still hear one or more of the other sirens. The problem with the overlapping is that when people tell the fire department their siren is out, the fire department has a hard time determining which siren is out.

&8220;On the first Wednesday of September, next week, we&8217;ll have somebody posted at all of them to do a thorough check to get them fixed, if there&8217;s any other ones that are down,&8221; said Fire Chief Paul Stieler of the Albert Lea Fire Department.