Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The siren cries "Wolf!"

Right now in Indianapolis we are in the midst of a thunderstorm with lots of rain and lightning. Not coincidentally, the National Weather Service just issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Marion County. Understandable, and working the way it's supposed to work. So far.

This severe thunderstorm warning is on top of a tornado watch already in effect for most of Central Indiana. Again, that's the way it's supposed to work, the way it has always worked.

Except the tornado sirens are going off.

Now, when I was growing up, unless it was their usual test time (Fridays at 11:00 am in Indianapolis, Wednesdays at 11:00 am in Columbus when I was at Ohio State) it was, as Joe Biden would say, a "big f*ckin' deal" when the tornado sirens went off. It meant there was a tornado warning. A tornado was coming and you better find some place of safety. Fast.

(Well, it was a "big f*ckin' deal" to most people. Not my dad. Once the sirens went off while he was mowing the lawn. My mom and I begged him to come inside. Dad responded with, "Tornado's not here yet," and went back to mowing.)

Some time ago, they went to a policy where when a severe thunderstorm warning was issued during a tornado watch, the tornado sirens would sound. I don't know why they went to this policy, though I'm sure they meant well, but it's an extremely bad idea.

Here's why:

The tornado siren was a "big f*ckin' deal" because it meant a tornado or at least a funnel cloud had been spotted or tracked. Incoming! Duck and cover! Or somesuch.

I could count on one hand the number of times the tornado siren went off when I was a kid. And I'd have fingers left. The rarity gave it instant credibility. We took it seriously.

Not anymore. I have now lost count of all the times the tornado sirens have gone off in the last 5 years. Almost never with an actual tornado anywhere to be found. Just because they decide to sound the siren with a severe thunderstorm warning combined with a tornado watch.

No longer do I first think "Duck and cover!" at the sound of the sirens. My first thought tends to be, "Now what?" Once when the sirens went off while I was in bed I almost didn't even bother to get up and check the weather. But I did anyway. Sure enough, there was no tornado.

The tornado siren was meant as a signal for people to seek immediate shelter. A tornado is good reason to seek immediate shelter. A simple thunderstorm? Not so much.

And so when you sound the siren for a simple thunderstorm, it goes from a warning of serious danger to an annoyance. People will come to ignore it.

If I'm staring to shrug off the sirens and I was conditioned by schooling and experience to take them very seriously, how will the younger generations who have not had that conditioning treat it?

And so when the sirens go off warning of an actual tornado, someone will die because they were conditioned not to take the sirens seriously, because the sirens had been abused like they are now.

I hope someone at the National Weather Service, law enforcement or civil defense changes this dangerous policy.

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