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January 19, 2014

Statehouse considering tornado siren bill

Bill would set statewide standards for storm sirens.

INDIANAPOLIS – When a potent weather system moved through Indiana last November, bringing 28 tornadoes, it was up to local officials to decide if and when to trigger their emergency warning systems.

Some sounded their outdoor storm sirens as soon the National Weather Service issued a tornado “watch.” Others waited until the more urgent tornado “warning” was issued. In hard-hit Kokomo, no sirens were sounded because the city doesn’t have them, relying instead on weather radios and the media.

Proposed legislation in the Statehouse would change that, mandating that all communities follow a statewide emergency-warning protocol established by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. It would cover both storm sirens and the new technology-based “mass notification” systems like the one Kokomo recently adopted, that sends automated warnings to cell phones, landlines and other devices.

Cost to the state of implementing the legislation, including monitoring counties to make sure they comply, may run as high as $400,000, according to a fiscal impact statement from the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency. Its unknown what the potential cost may be to local communities.

The bill was filed by a lawmaker who fears confusion over what the storm sirens mean since there is no uniform standard for when and how they’re used.

“If you’re in Lafayette and you hear a weather siren go off, it might have an entirely different meaning than in Greenwood where I live,” said Republican state Sen. Brent Waltz. “I don’t care what the standards are, as long as citizens know what a siren means when it goes off.”

Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, who chairs the House Local Government Committee where the bill has been assigned, has set a hearing on the legislation for Wednesday.

Some similar legislation, authored by then-Sen. Connie Lawson of Danville (now Secretary of State), was passed in 2008: It required the state Homeland Security Department to gather information on existing storm sirens, establish minimal technical standards for new sirens and to define when those sirens should be activated.

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