The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 17, 2012

City officials to hear posed changes to storm-siren policy

Details not being disclosed ahead of City Council meeting

By Debby Woodin

JOPLIN, Mo. — Joplin city officials are to hear proposed changes to the city’s storm-siren policy, but no details were being disclosed in advance of a City Council presentation next week.

The policy changes are in response to a National Weather Service investigation last year that concluded that people are desensitized to the sirens and that a more assertive approach to warnings should be taken.

 Fire Chief Mitch Randles, asked Friday by the Globe for details of the policy change proposals, said city officials are “looking at the way we’ve done (siren warnings) for years, taking into account the stories we’ve heard.”

The city and the National Weather Service have been studying why some people did not take cover or delayed taking cover when a tornado warning was issued and the sirens set off before one of the most deadly EF-5 twisters in the nation’s history hit Joplin.

“We’re looking at things that worked well or didn’t work well for us leading up to the storm on May 22,” the fire chief said. He declined to give any specifics of the proposed changes.

 The city’s public information officer, Lynn Onstot, said the city is looking at ways to create a sense of urgency when storm sirens are activated, though she did not offer details of what that study produced. She said the city does not want to create confusion about the policy changes before they are presented to the council.

Investigators for the National Weather Service last summer surveyed residents about how they respond when they hear the sirens and reported that many turned on their television, called a friend or relative, or went out to check the skies after the sirens sounded to try to confirm whether they should take cover. Many told the Weather Service investigators they delayed taking cover or did not take cover because they “hear sirens all the time” or are “bombarded with sirens so often that we don’t pay attention.”

The NWS report reads that the “perceived frequency of siren activation in Joplin led the majority of survey participants to become desensitized or complacent to this method of warning. This suggests that initial siren activations in Joplin have lost a degree of credibility for most residents.”

City policy has been to sound the sirens when a tornado or a severe storm with winds in excess of 75 mph is headed for the city. They are set off in one, three-minute blast that the report said made it difficult to discern the magnitude of the threat.

After confirming the threat that day, many did take shelter, even a number of the 161 who died, according to the report.

The sirens, officials have always said, are designed to warn people who are outdoors. The city’s policy has been that use of a weather radio is the most reliable way indoors to receive current weather information, watches or warnings.

When and where

The Joplin City Council is to meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 602 S. Main St.