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The science
Warning sirens fall short

Official says weather radios are more reliable

By Tracy Overstreet
The Independent

The man who makes emergency management his business says an outdoor warning system isn't ideal for making citizens aware when bad weather approaches.

Grand Island/Hall County Emergency Management Director Howard Maxon said individual weather radios are superior to Grand Island's 26 outdoor warning sirens and 10 more within the county.

"Many times, the notice we receive ... for a tornado warning comes from weather radio," Maxon said.

Talk of tornadoes touches close to home for many in Grand Island on June 3, the day when seven tornadoes hit in 1980.

The National Weather Service places its priority on weather radio, he said. That means people relying on notification from the outdoor warning system will get the notice after those who have weather radios.

Maxon said the outdoor sirens, despite monthly testing, can malfunction.

"If the electricity is off, the sirens won't work," he said.

Weather radios, he said, have a battery backup.

Hall County has a mix of three sizes and styles of electromechanical sirens that actually move air to make sound. The volume, depending on the size of the siren, varies from 98 to 128 decibels.

Yet, Maxon said some people claim they can't hear the sirens in Grand Island.

Reasons for a siren not being heard can range from wind direction to extensive home insulation. And not all areas in Grand Island fall within the broadcast range of existing sirens.

Maxon said a pocket at 13th and Ruby doesn't fall within a coverage circle. Because the area is surrounded by coverage areas on all other sides, he said, it's likely that wind would carry the sound of a siren into that area.

Fonner Park also falls outside the coverage circles, as does new commercial development at Faidley and Highway 281.

Maxon has no intention of asking the city council or county board to add additional sirens. He will, however, help citizens who want to petition those government bodies for a siren.

"I used to go push for these things," Maxon said of new sirens. The last outdoor sirens in Grand Island were added in 1993.

His attitude changed when residents in a subdivision requested an outdoor warning siren and then protested its placement near homes.

Maxon said a lot of people are confused by the outdoor warning sirens. They fail to tune in and take necessary cover when the sirens are activated.

After June 3, 1980, when seven tornadoes twisted Grand Island into a pile of debris and left five people dead, people paid attention to the sirens, Maxon said.

A former police chief noted that a cannon shot down South Locust wouldn't hit a thing because people cleared out and took cover when sirens activated.

Now, Maxon said, most people go about their business.

"Time heals all wounds," he said.

Maxon said a weather radio can be tailored to an individual's needs. It can be programmed to sound only for certain counties, and the volume can be adjusted.

"It's all about tuning in," Maxon said of being prepared for bad weather.

Although Maxon believes in providing information to the public about dangers, he said there's a partnership with the public to heed the warning.

"Their safety is their responsibility," he said.