Emergency officials say radios need to backup sirens
On a stormy Thursday evening last month, a De Soto City Council meeting was interrupted by three different blasts from the storm siren.
In a scene probably played out in many local homes, city council members and those in attendance looked out at the clouds and wondered if they should head for shelter.
On the first occasion, everyone went to the lower level. On the second and third blasts, the meeting went on after cell phone calls from De Soto Fire Chief Kevin Ritter provided information the sirens were sounded when funnels were spotted near first Edgerton and then Gardner.
The first siren was sounded because of a wall cloud, which often produce tornadoes, passed over De Soto, Ritter said. Subsequent to that, funnels were spotted in the area of Edgerton and Gardner, he said.
Johnson County officials control the sirens in De Soto, Ritter said Monday. That's is true of most county cities, although Gardner, Olathe, Lenexa and Overland Park control their sirens. Johnson County Emergency Management and the Sheriff's office both can control the countywide system, a redundancy that provides an alternative should one be unable to perform.
The county's long, steady weather warning (an undulating siren warns of an attack) is sounded when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for the county, the certified weather spotter reports a funnel or a law enforcement officer, firefighter or other public safety officer makes a report, said Nick Crossley, Johnson County Emergency and Homeland Security interim director.
The county sirens are grouped in zones, giving operators the ability to sound all sirens in the county or just those in zones thought to be under threat, Crossley said. The five zones are laid out in a pattern that reflects to the southwest to northeast path of many tornadoes. De Soto is in Zone 4 with western Lenexa, nearly all of Shawnee and the smaller cities of northeast Johnson County.
The flexibility the zoned control gives his department helps assure sirens aren't sounded when an area isn't threatened, which helps guard against any "crying wolf" attitudes that would lessen the sirens' effectiveness, Crossley said.
"That's always a concern," he said. "We review our policies after every event to assure we're doing what we should with the best available knowledge and expertise."
On April 21, the night of the interrupted city council meeting, sirens were first sounded in the northwest part of the county, then countywide and finally in the southeast section, Crossley said.
Although sirens may be clearly heard in most De Soto homes the first Wednesday of each month when they are tested, they are meant to alert only those outside, Crossley said. That's because sirens might not be audible with the wind, rain, thunder or hail that could accompany an approaching tornado or when a home is closed up with an air conditioner running, he said.
Instead, Crossley and Ritter said families and businesses should have National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather alert radios. NOAA "standalone" receivers can be programmed sound alerts when warnings are issued for specific areas.
Ritter said the NOAA radio in his home was programmed to alert his family when a warning was issued for Johnson County or neighboring Franklin, Douglas, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties.
Metropolitan television and radio stations provide very good information during threatening storms, Crossley said. Nonetheless, his advice when a siren or NOAA warning was issued was to seek shelter and then listen or watch.
"Error on the side of caution, especially if there's a large group, there are children, elderly or any mobility issues," he said.
Weather conditions that produce funnels TV stations are tracking are capable of producing others that could develop with little or no warning with deadly consequences to those who have not sought safety, Crossley said.
"That's what happened in Missouri last week," he said.
During the tornado season of spring and early summer, Kansans should be aware of conditions and any watches that precede an outbreak of severe weather, Crossley said.
Ritter said about half of the De Soto Fire Department's 54 members have had some training in weather spotting. About 15 showed up at the station or went to lookout spots the evening of April 21, he said.