Storm Siren Policy Discussed
Oskaloosa, Iowa – For some Oskaloosa residents, questions remain as to why the outdoor storm sirens were not activated during Sunday’s severe thunderstorm.
The National Weather Service in Des Moines issued the warning at 2:59pm on Sunday afternoon, the Mahaska County 911 center processed the call at nearly 3:01pm, and by then calls for help were coming into the 911 center. At 3:06pm, the storm warning was posted to the Oskaloosa News Facebook page.
In the matter of less than 3 minutes, Oskaloosa got the warning, lost power and was sustaining damage.
Oskaloosa’s Fire Chief said that the call came in and as they were acknowledging the warning, the fire-station went dark. Just moments after that, “There was multiple calls coming in at that time,” said Neff.
The 911 Center then experienced a software issue because the call volume increased, and the emergency generator at the radio tower failed to start. For a period of 15 minutes after the storm had knocked out power to the fire-station, the 911 Center and the communications tower. This left law enforcement, fire and every other emergency responder relying on the county fire channel for its communication needs.
Even though the 911 Center is the primary location for activating the outdoor storm sirens, the fire department also has that capability. The storm sirens are activated via radio, and a tone sent to them via radio frequency. “The only way we can sound those sirens is we would have to pull portable generators out, power up our radio. Then we could set them off,” said Neff.
What is the criteria for activating the storm sirens? According to the most recent policy updates, it’s as follows:
The Outdoor warning sirens shall be sounded for a:
- A. Tornado Warning issued by the National Weather Service and/or
- B. Tornado or funnel cloud reported by a trained spotter.
- C. Severe Thunderstorm Warning issued by the National Weather Service or a report from a trained spotter that includes:
-Wind 70mph or greater (whole trees blown down) (Additional background at www.spc.ncep.noaa.gov/efscale) and/or golf ball sized hail or larger (1.75 inch diameter or greater)
The National Weather Service issued the warning on Sunday, it stated that 60 mph wind gusts and potentially quarter size hail were possible in this storm.
According to the criteria in place since May of 2013, the requirements for activating the outdoor sirens had not been met.
The criteria from May of 2013 replaced a policy that had been in place that activated the outdoor storm sirens whenever a warned storm was within 10 miles of Oskaloosa. The policy at that time had lead to a condition of individuals ignoring the siren because of its continual usage, and public officials became concerned for the public safety.
The ferocity of the storm was unexpected, not only to local safety officials, but also to the National Weather Service. No other entity, law enforcement, fire, or trained spotter, had reported storm damage. According to the report by National Weather Service, the storm intensified just outside of Beacon. “On this particular storm, there was no reports of [damage], said Neff. “Nothing of this nature.”
National Weather Service stated, “The only damage found in town [Lovilla] was three broken tree sections and light siding damage to one building. This intermittent and weak straight-line wind damage trail continued northeastward through southwestern Mahaska County before strengthening to the southwest of Beacon at 3:10pm CDT. This increase in intensity is supported by data from the Des Moines WSR-88D radar.”
At that point, NWS said the storm grew in intensity and reached speeds of up to 90 mhp, “These straight-line winds progressed rapidly into southwest Oskaloosa,” says NWS. “These storms are living, breathing elements of nature, that change just that quick,” said Neff, who snapped his fingers.
“If you are the first one to experience [storm], you’ve got very little warning,” said Neff.
“At no point are we going to be able to completely cover 100% of the time, instances like occurred Sunday,” said Neff
There are plans to review the policy and what happened Sunday at the next Public Safety meeting, “We need to discuss it, and, to me, not make some knee-jerk reaction,” Neff said.